This analysis originally appeared at southfront.org on November 11, 2017, after the Syrian and Russian defense ministries for the first time announced the liberation of al-Bukamal. On November 19, the Syrian Arab Army and its allies once again liberated the city from ISIS. Thus, the terrorist group lost its last stronghold in Syria.
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The liberation of al-Bukamal become another turning point marking the start of a new phase in the Syrian conflict. ISIS has lost all important cities, which it used to control in Syria, thus becoming just a terrorist group rather than a terrorist state.
The terrorist group still controls some villages in an area between al-Bukamal and Deir Ezzor, a part of the border between Syria and Iraq, a part of the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus and a chunk of territory near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Many ISIS members are now fleeing the country in an attempt to reach safe havens around the world. The remaining terrorists will be involved in a guerilla war against the Syrian government and US-backed forces.
Now, Syria could be divided into 7 sectors controlled by various parties:
- The Syrian government, backed by its allies – Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, controls the biggest part of the country, including the cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Deir Ezzor, Damascus, Latakia, as-Suwayda and Tartus. However, the militant-held pockets inside the government-held area pose a significant security threat. The situation is especially complicated in Eastern Ghouta and the Yarmouk Refugee Camp. The pockets of Bayt Jinn, Jayrud and Rastan are relatively calm.
- The situation is complicated in Daraa where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and its allies are in control of a part of the provincial capital. The Russia-US de-escalation zone agreement in southern Syria allowed the intensity of fighting there to decrease. Despite this, clashes erupt from time to time in Daraa city and near the Golan Heights. Militants in southern Syria are mostly backed by Jordan, the US and Israel. Tel Aviv often uses tensions in the area to justify its strikes against Syrian forces and describes its support to local militants as a humanitarian assistance to the local population. It is interesting to note that Israel has no problems with the ISIS-linked Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, which operates near its forces. The so-called local armed opposition does not seek to fight ISIS there either.
- The at-Tanf area on the Syrian-Iraqi border is controlled by the US-led coalition and a few US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups. FSA units are concentrated around the US garrison at at-Tanf and in the nearby refugee camp. The US says that it needs this garrison to fight ISIS while in fact it is just preventing Syria and Iraq from using the Damascus-Baghdad highway as a supply line. US forces respond with airstrikes and shelling to any Syrian Arab Army (SAA) attempts to reach at-Tanf.
- Northeastern Syria, including the cities of Raqqa, Tabqah, Hasakah and a part of Qamishli, is controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Kurdish militias YPG and YPJ are a core of the SDF and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) de-facto controls this area. A notable number of US military facilities and troops in this area are an important factor contributing to the SDF’s confidence. Some aggressive SDF statements against Damascus can serve as an illustration of this fact.
- Northwestern Syria is also controlled by the SDF. However, the US influence in this area is lower and local Kurdish militias maintain better military relations with the Syrian-Iranian-Russian alliance. They also face more pressure from Turkey and its proxies.
- Turkey and pro-Turkish militant groups control a chunk of the border area, including al-Bab, Azaz and Jarabulus, in northern Syria. Ankara has a strong position there and pro-Turkish militants have repeatedly clashed with SDF members near Tall Rifat.
- Turkish forces are also deployed at the contact line with the SDF in the province of Idlib. However, almost the entire province is still controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This means that Ankara and the terrorist group have reached a kind of agreement over the deployment of the Turkish troops. Ankara actively uses various militant groups to pressure Kurdish forces, which it sees a part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK operates in Turkey and northern Iraq and has been seeking for a long time to establish an independent Kurdish state there.
Clashes of various intensity between the SAA and HTS have been ongoing in northern and northeastern Hama since October. This clearly shows that the Idlib de-escalation agreement is not working and creates HTS positions in the area, which will be an obvious target for the expected SAA operation after ISIS is driven out from the rest of villages in the Euphrates Valley. According to pro-government sources, the SAA has already started redeploying elite units from Deir Ezzor to Hama.
Experts believe that the mid-term SAA goal there is to further expand buffer zone along the Ithriyah-Khanaser-Aleppo highway and to liberate Abu ad-Duhur. This will allow to shorten frontline and increase a concentration of troops and equipment on the contact line when the so-called opposition decides that it’s time to negotiate.
Another possible hot point is Daraa. Local militants will resume their military activity in the city if they see that their Idlib counterparts have become a target of a large-scale SAA operation.
Now, Russia, the US, Turkey, Iran and Syria are increasing their diplomatic activity in order to find a way, which could allow work to start on developing a final political settlement of the crisis. They all have objective limits to their influence on the ground and some contradictory goals. This complicates the situation, especially amid a lack of strategic vision from the US which, according even to American experts, has no long-term strategy for Syria. The US elites and their Israeli and Saudi counterparts are especially dissatisfied with the strengthened position of Hezbollah and Iran.
If the sides are not able to find common ground in the nearest future, the conflict may easily give rise to a new round of violence.