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Iraq and Syria conflicts threaten to reshape regional map

27 September 2017 Jane's Editorial Staff

This is an extract from an article that appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review

Key points:

  • The prospect of Iraq and Syria returning to a system of centralised governance by a single authority is extremely low, although the Islamic State will lose its territorial holdings in the region and revert to insurgency.
  • There is no reasonable scenario in the coming five years in which the Syrian government can be defeated by rebel forces, but the complete re-conquest of all Syrian territory by government forces is equally unlikely.
  • De facto changes to the regional map will include the survival of a Kurdish enclave of considerable size in north-eastern Syria and the establishment of a quasi-independent Kurdistan.

Conflict in the Middle East is fracturing nation states along ethnic, religious, and political lines. This article considers the factors that are influencing how the map of the Middle East might look in five years if current pressures on borders persist.

The area covering the states of Iraq and Syria was characterised by repressive stability for an extended period from the early 1970s to the first years of the 21st century, with both countries ruled by powerful police-state regimes whose official ideology was the secular Arab nationalism of the Baath Party. The major changes that decisively ended this period of stability were the destruction of late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 by the US and its allies, and the outbreak of armed insurgency against the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

In Syria, the subsequent Assad government redeployment of June-July 2012 led to the de facto division of Syria into three areas of control: the government-controlled west; Sunni Arab rebel enclaves in the northwest, southwest, and east; and three non-contiguous Kurdish cantons along the Syrian-Turkish border at Afrin, Jazeera, and Kobanê. The rebel area was further subdivided following the entry of the Islamic State in Iraq - rebranded the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2013 - and its expulsion of other rebel groups from its area of control in eastern Syria. Territorial lines of control have altered considerably since mid-2013, but these four entities - the Syrian government, Kurds, Sunni Arab rebels, and the fast-eroding Islamic State - remain in existence.

The Islamic State's advance into Iraq in mid-2014 led to a similar de facto division. The swift conquest by the Sunni jihadists of a large area of central Iraq, the jihad fatwa of Ayatollah Ali Sistani in June 2014, the subsequent mobilisation of Shia militia forces, and the important role played by Kurdish fighters of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK) have also produced a de facto reality of three entities in Iraq: the Baghdad government, the KRG, and the Islamic State.

By August 2017, the area under the control of the Islamic State since 2014 - straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border - was in an advanced state of erosion, but other components of the regional fragmentation looked set to survive. With the war against the Islamic State in Iraq nearing completion, and a process of de-escalation under way that will divide Syria into various areas of control, the future will depend on the evolution of the various entities that now comprise these fragmented areas, specifically the Syrian government-controlled area, the Syrian Kurdish cantons, the Sunni Arab rebel-controlled areas in north-western and southern Syria, the Turkish-controlled enclave between Azaz and Jarabulus, the Islamic State area in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, the Iraqi government-controlled area, and the predominantly Sunni Arab areas of Iraq.

The wars in Iraq and Syria are not closed systems, but involve the active engagement of regional and global powers. Consequently, the current and future stances of Iran, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States will all be crucial in assessing the viability of the various entities.

The content from this blog post is compiled from Jane's Intelligence Review. For more information or to subscribe visit Jane's Intelligence Review

Jane's Editorial Staff
Posted 27 September 2017


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