In 2011 the US, many EU countries (especially France), Turkey and Saudi Arabia started financing and providing weapons to anti-Assad groups in Syria. Many of these groups were, or were allied to, terrorist groups which have in turn warped to become ISIS or al Qaida or the Al Nusrah front. This support was instrumental in helping ISIS to grow into the monster it became. The focus was entirely one of regime change and the downfall of Assad. The EU countries even “encouraged” some of their more radical Muslim groups to send “freedom fighters” to Syria expecting that Assad would soon disappear. Instead these “freedom fighters” soon became willing recruits for ISIS and other terrorist groups. At that time the Russians and Iranians supported Assad but rather passively and through surrogates rather than directly.
Russian support (along with that from Iran and Hisbollah) kept Assad alive in a shrinking territory. Neither the US nor the EU was willing to put its own troops on the ground. With Obama’s risk aversion (indecision) and shifting red lines Assad was spared any knock-out blow. With the growing ISIS threat the Russians finally intervened directly (2014) and turned the tide for Assad and against ISIS. The beginning of the end for ISIS was when Turkey left the US strategy and joined the Russians (and Iran). Aleppo was retaken. ISIS still holds Mosul in Iraq.
Now it looks like the new US administration may very well acquiesce with, if not fully join, the Russian strategy. The US will probably now stop supporting the rebel, anti-Assad factions even though some of them are not allied with the terrorist groups (though many are).
As Trump takes over, a diminished ISIS awaits
ISIS’ caliphate shrinks in 2016 ISIS is losing ground across its self-proclaimed caliphate, according to a new report. Global intelligence and analysis firm IHS Conflict Monitor, which uses open-source intelligence including social media and on-the-ground sources, estimates that ISIS lost 17,600 square kilometers (6,800 square miles) of the land it held in Iraq and Syria over 2016. ISIS’ caliphate in the two countries shrunk by 23% over the course of the year, according to a survey and map released by IHS. The group lost 34% in the same region compared to January 2015. The US-led coalition say ISIS has lost 27% of its territory in Syria — and 61% in Iraq — from its peak.
In addition to ISIS’ de facto capital of Raqqa, the militant group retains patches of land not far from Homs and around the ancient city of Palmyra — control of which it regained from the Syrian regime late last year. It also has a presence in the countryside around the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. IHS reported spikes in territory lost by ISIS when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, took control of the strategic city of Ash Shaddadi in March, moved on to Manbij in May, and in mid-October when Euphrates Shield, Turkey’s ground operation against ISIS in Syria, retook the symbolically significant town of Dabiq.
But what will the EU do now?
I expect that the UK will align itself behind Trump (and that alignment in other areas has already started as Teresa May starts implementing Brexit). With elections coming up in France, Hollande may not have much room to continue with his misguided support of his favourite rebel groups. Merkel is also facing elections and her open door policy has allowed – or is perceived to have allowed – many of the European Muslim, ISIS murderers to return to Europe. Nice and Berlin can be connected to that. My guess is that a splintered and fractured EU will do little and just gradually allow its once strong support of rebel groups to wither away.
Mohamad Bazzi has an insightful commentary in Reuters:
Islamic State lashes out as Turkey flirts with Russia
…. Islamic State is also lashing out at a new and burgeoning Turkish-Russian alliance, which is one of the main factors reshaping the Syrian war today. In late 2016, Turkey backed away from supporting Syrian rebels in Aleppo, which helped the Assad regime and its allies – including Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias from Lebanon and Iraq – to force rebels from their strongholds in eastern Aleppo and regain full control of the city. In mid-December, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was working with Turkish leaders to negotiate a new ceasefire between Assad and rebel groups, and to organize a fresh round of Syrian peace talks without Washington’s involvement. The talks are scheduled to start on Jan. 23 in Kazakhstan.
The Syrian conflict has turned into a proxy war that involves regional and world powers – including the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – whose interests sometimes overlap, but at other times lead to multiple conflicts. Soon after the war began in 2011, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States started sending weapons and funds to rebel groups trying to topple Assad’s regime. Some of these rebels were forced into battlefield or tactical alliances with al Qaeda affiliated groups and other jihadists. More recently, Washington has shifted its focus to fighting Islamic State rather than ousting the Syrian regime. Assad’s two main backers, Russia and Iran, are mainly targeting rebel factions opposed to the regime, rather than trying to defeat Islamic State. ……..
…….. Turkish troops and allied rebels are trying to push Islamic State fighters from Al-Bab, a town north of Aleppo, and one of the jihadists’ last holdouts near the Turkish border. But Turkish forces are bogged down in an unexpectedly grueling battle: About 50 soldiers have been killed since Ankara sent its forces into Syria in August, including 16 killed in a single day during an Islamic State counter-attack in Al-Bab.
The battle for Al-Bab is causing other complications and setting up a potential battle between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and American-supported Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (known by its Kurdish acronym, YPG). The YPG is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of rebel groups, which is leading a ground offensive of 30,000 fighters to oust Islamic State from the city of Raqqa, capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate. The campaign is supported by U.S. air strikes and more than 500 special forces who are helping the rebels gain ground.
In late December, Turkish leaders complained that Washington was not providing similar air support to help Turkish troops advance in Al-Bab. Within days, Russia began coordinating with the Turkish military and carrying out air strikes in the area.
In flirting with Russia, Erdogan’s government is sending a message to the incoming Donald Trump administration that Ankara has other options if the United States continues its support of Syrian Kurdish factions. But as it gets closer to Russia and more deeply involved in fighting Islamic State, Turkey risks incurring the group’s wrath.
Left wing and socialist governments in Europe have been particularly supportive of Palestine and anti-Israel to the verge of being anti-Semitic. (All European socialist parties have a strong anti-Semitic thread which has been hiding under a pro-Palestine, anti-Israel cloak). This support has not only been political but has also provided money for would-be terrorists from Europe. If Trump now moves the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the balance will shift away from the two-state solution, which cannot work, and the EU will face another dilemma.
A US / Russia alliance in the Middle East is a game changer and the EU is too slow, too fractured, too smug and too self-righteous to even realise when the game has changed.