According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, about 50,000 people, including 5,000 ISIS fighters, have left their havens in eastern Syria over the last three months. The militants are of diverse nationalities: Though most come from Iraq, others are from Russia, other Arab states and even the Philippines. While the Iraqis, mainly from Anbar province, are expected to go home through the porous border, others are seeking to escape either to Turkey or even to Idlib, which is presently dominated by Hayat Tahrir Al-Shams (HTS), the former Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Turkey has a tough approach to militants using its territory to go home and has announced the arrest and incarceration of several hundred of them over the last two years. But observers are skeptical, with Turkish commentator Fehim Tastekin saying ISIS fighters “enjoy lenient treatment” in Turkey, with
The escape route through Idlib is more complex. HTS, headed by Abu Mohammed Al-Julani, continues to view ISIS with the same hostility that its leader felt for his former mentor and ISIS chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi when he was in charge of the group’s predecessor in Iraq.
As the SDF engages in its final assault at Baghouz, other maneuvers are taking place among the principal international players to ensure their interests are protected in this endgame scenario.
US President Donald Trump continues to sow confusion and uncertainty, causing equal bewilderment among his antagonists and his senior officials. Having announced in mid-December the immediate withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria, he modified the time-frame to April or May under pressure from his staff. He then said US troops would be stationed in Iraq to monitor Iranian activity, evoking strong Iraqi statements asserting national sovereignty.
Then, in a partial reversal, he said on Feb. 22 that 400 US troops would remain in Syria. It is now believed that 200 of them will be in Syria permanently as part of a multinational NATO force numbering between 800 and 1,500, mainly from Europe. Their role appears to be to prevent the resurgence of ISIS and to prevent Turkey from maintaining a military presence in northern Syria to monitor Kurdish activity. This clearly contradicts the arrangement Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had arrived
Amidst this uncertainty, the three partners in the Astana peace process — Russia, Iran
After this, their differences became clear: Turkey wanted an endorsement of its proposal to set up a “safe zone” in the north, patrolled by its troops, to control Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. But both Russia and Iran, believing this would threaten Syrian unity and integrity, insisted that the areas vacated by the Americans be occupied by Syrian government forces. Russia also offered that its military police would patrol the border to check for Kurdish militant activity.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani spoke up for the Kurds, saying that “Kurdish rights should be ensured in the future of Syria.” Russia, meanwhile, is encouraging the Kurds to engage with the Assad government. To ensure sustained Iranian support amidst these uncertainties, Bashar Assad paid his first visit to Tehran in eight years on Feb. 25.
As ISIS is facing territorial defeat, regional commentators have started reflecting on what gave birth to this violent scourge and where it is likely to go. Some commentators are pointing fingers at unnamed intelligence agencies that wish to keep the Arab world divided and in conflict.
ISIS fighters who escape from Syria are expected to relocate to
While ISIS may have lost the “caliphate,” it will continue to resonate with frustrated and marginalized youths in the Middle East and beyond. The latter, as lone wolves, will continue down the path of wanton destruction, even as states maneuver thoughtlessly to maximize their own advantage.