Since February 9th of this year, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began operations in the final enclave of ISIS in eastern Syria. The Battle of Baghuz Fawqani has taken longer than expected due to ISIS holding hundreds of prisoners, most of which are civilians that are being effectively used as human shields. With an expected SDF victory in the coming weeks or even days, Kurds and their allies are now pushing to convert western military support into one that is inherently political to sustain their gains.
Eight years of civil war in Syria has left that country deeply divided, but one thing that has become increasingly clear is that the Syrian government has effectively won the war against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and the SDF has won the war against ISIS, leaving these two groups as the main participants of any national reconciliation in the future. The SDF, formed by the US as a coalition of anti-ISIS fighters led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has established a de-facto self-governing region that makes up nearly 30 percent of Syrian territory. The self-declared Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) has been a unique experience of mainly Kurds, Arabs and Assyrian Christians governing a territory together, but it may not be able to sustain itself without further backing from western powers. With Turkey continuing to threaten the SDF under the pretext of fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels, and Damascus insisting on regaining full control of Syria even if takes violent means, the SDF will be stuck between a rock and a hard place if western powers do not politically back the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration.
Although US President Donald Trump’s u-turn on a full military withdrawal from Syria is good news for their SDF allies, political support is also needed to curb the revival of ISIS. ISIS was able to establish itself in Syria because of the conditions of state failure and civil war, something that the Syrian government (and rebels) are responsible for. By lending full political support to the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administrations vis-à-vis Damascus during peace negotiations, the former could have more leverage, instead of ceding to demands that may allow the conditions for ISIS to rise again.
The Syrian government’s demands, such as the handover of territory controlled by the SDF, will lead to instability as many simply do not want to return to life under President Bashar al-Assad. The last thing that Syria needs at this moment in time is another revolt, as it was this that led to the civil war and eventual rise of the so-called Caliphate that terrorised much of Iraq and Syria. The western world has a moral obligation to never allow the rise of such terrorist organisations again, as it is not only a threat to the Muslim-majority countries, but also a threat on their own soil. The rise of Islamism has facilitated the rise of anti-Muslim elements in the far-right which ultimately led to the dreadful events in New Zealand. This sets a dangerous precedent if the likes of ISIS are not permanently defeated