The current push in Congress finally to abandon the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and replace it with a more limited and focused authorization for the war against ISIS may be overtaken by events. ISIS (also ISIL, Islamic State, or Daesh) is on its last legs in Syria and Iraq. By the time Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson work out new details with the GOP leadership in the Senate, it may be nothing more than a few remnant terrorism cells not easily addressed by military means. If a new authorization is crafted and passed targeting ISIS alone, it may ironically have the effect of tying the administration’s hands militarily, since ISIS as a so-called “state” is likely soon to be a distant, unpleasant memory.
Ironically, the terrorist state is being rolled up precisely by that Russo-American cooperation that candidate Trump kept touting in places like Syria. Despite the imposition of new sanctions on Russia by Congress this week, which Trump felt constrained to sign, in eastern Syria the Russian air force is acting in tandem with the American against the ISIS threat.
In Iraq, the so-called “caliphate” (never taken seriously by almost any of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world) has lost its only major metropolis, Mosul, and hangs on only in small rural Sunni cities and the rugged northern countryside.
In Syria, ISIS has lost half of its capital, Raqqa, in the eastern Syrian desert, as US-backed leftist Kurds and their allies among local Arab clans have invaded and chipped away at ISIS’s urban real estate.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the core of which is the leftist YPG Kurdish militia, has just completely surrounded the city of Raqqa, closing off the last major escape route for ISIS fighters on its southern perimeter. Supported with air strikes by US and coalition fighter jets, the SDF implemented a pincer movement, with units to the east of the city coming down and around to meet up with units advancing from the west. The Pentagon described the offensive as having achieved secure gains. The campaign to take the city began at the beginning of June. As the last gaps in the SDF line in the south are filled in, it will prevent ISIS fighters from fleeing south to the Euphrates River and escaping. The SDF estimates that 90 percent of Raqqa’s southern neighborhoods have been liberated. The SDF is also now ensconced in the north of the city, having taken 10 square kilometers of additional territory there in the past few days. International humanitarian organizations have expressed concerns over the fate of the estimated 50,000 noncombatants still trapped in the city.
Raqqa the city is the capital of Raqqa the province. In the east of this province and in the next province to the south, Deir al-Zor, a different cast of characters is taking territory away from ISIS. The Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation have given air support to the Syrian Arab Army of Baath leader Bashar al-Assad in the southern Euphrates region. Dozens of air strikes hit ISIS positions in the city of Madan and surrounding hamlets down to Deir al-Zor, southeast of Raqqa city. In essence, the Russians and the Syrian regime are nailing down Raqqa’s eastern and southern flank for the Americans and Kurds, even though in public pronouncements the Damascus regime has complained about Syrian Kurdish expansionism and vowed that these regions will be reincorporated into a united Syria.
If the Damascus regime is annoyed with US support for the Syrian Kurds in the northeast, and worried about what it means for the long-term integrity of the country, neighboring Turkey is alternately filled with rage and stark-raving fear. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan views the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as Syrian branches of Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan and the PKK have both escalated a violent confrontation in eastern Anatolia, with the Turkish president appearing to have decided that ratcheting up tensions with the PKK would shore up his support among nationalist Turks. Both the Syrian PYD/YPG and the Turkish PKK are left-leaning and strongly Kurdish nationalist, while Erdogan stands for the Turkish Muslim right wing.
This week a conservative Turkish newspaper lambasted the US special envoy on ISIS, Brett McGurk, as a mass murderer for his support of the YPG. Turkey is also upset at what it perceives as McGurk’s criticism of it for supporting Sunni rebel fighters in Idlib Province in Syria’s northwest, many of whom are extremists with ties to Al Qaeda. The US State Department denies that he was slamming Ankara, saying that he explicitly said the United States needed to work with Turkey to defeat Al Qaeda in the northwest. Earlier, the official Turkish news agency Anadolu published the locations of US bases in the Syrian Kurdish region, essentially handing the information to ISIS. Many in Washington have seen Erdogan as a useless ally on the ISIS front, since he has virtually ignored it in favor of concentrating on what he sees as a much more dire threat from the PKK.
Although ISIS is clearly living through its last days as a territorial entity, its defeat may not bring peace to eastern Syria. Damascus and Ankara are both afraid that the United States may establish a long-term military base in the Syrian Kurdish northeast and may adopt the Syrian Kurds as long-term clients. The Baath regime of Syria insists that it will recover its own control over Raqqa province and even over the Syrian Kurds (who say that they would only accept that outcome if Syria becomes a loose federation).
Syrian Kurdish autonomy is also anathema to Ankara. After the war winds down and Turkey gives up its support for Sunni rebels, Erdogan and Assad could make a common pact on the Kurds. Syrian Kurdish leaders desperately hope that Washington will in fact stick around to support them in the long term. If, however, Congress limits any authorization for use of military force to fighting ISIS, and ISIS is decisively defeated, it is not clear on what basis the United States would maintain fighting forces in Syria. The Kurds should probably find a way to compromise with Assad over a sort of Syrian “states’ rights,” because otherwise they will be depending on President Trump as a steadfast and consistent friend.