Interview with Josef Kraus about Islamic State's future

  • Michaela Ceklová
  • 23.3.2017 09:17

Nowadays we often talk about the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. What happens while the Islamic state gradually weakens? Will it disintegrate? Will the Islamic State fighters move into another territory? These questions and more were answered by Josef Kraus who works at the Centre for Security and Military Strategic Studies of University of Defence and also works as a researcher at the Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University.

What happens to the Islamic State when its main territorial possessions are conquered? How will the defeat of the Islamic State change the situation in the region?

It will probably fall apart and fall into itself. Which does not mean that the controlled territories will have peace. On the contrary, these areas will be fought over between other rebel groups operating in Syria, local warlords, deserters from the IS, who will want to shoot their way out of the besieged territory, etc. A kind of power vacuum will emerge and someone will have to fill it. Who will they be and how will they do so, cannot be predicted at the moment.

How will the Islamic State change in its functioning when it does not control such a large territory?

It is expected that the created power-hierarchical pseudo-state will perish and the territory previously controlled by the Islamic State will fall apart and fall under control of powerful local leaders, rebel groups and militias. The most painful for the remnants of the IS will be loss of control over mining infrastructure because it equals being cut off from important financial flows that kept the IS alive.

 

"Terrorism works like a bubble in linoleum. You push it in one place and it reappears somewhere else."

 

Is there a chance of moving to e.g. Yemen, where a conflict takes place as well and where the Islamic State competes with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)?

Terrorism works like a bubble in linoleum. You push it in one place and it reappears somewhere else. So when the collapse of the IS happens, the territories will be gradually seized by other actors and local fighters will logically move elsewhere. Yemen may be one of the likely destinations, but personally I'd rather bet on the territory of the former Libya. I say "former" deliberately because Libya as a state has ceased to exist and there is no central authority controlling the entire area.

What impacts on Europe do you expect  – a migration crisis, radicalism etc.?

Of course, migration will continue because it is not as dependent on the IS as you hear in the media. Large numbers of migrants came from other parts of the world, not only from Syrian or Iraqi territory. The result will be definitely the aforementioned return of the IS fighters back to their home European countries and the associated risk of terrorist attacks and the spread of Islamic extremism.

 

"The difficult and important task for the security system of individual countries will be to prepare for [the returning European IS fighters'] arrival."

 

Is there a chance that the attention of Islamic radicals will shift to the West?

It is obviously one of the options. Mostly it will apply to those fighters who came to fight for the IS from Europe and therefore they have French, Belgian, British or German passports. Logically, these people will begin to come back. The difficult and important task for the security system of individual countries will be to prepare for their arrival.

How the regional actors influence the conflict – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc.?

Very intensively. All three states are quite intensively involved in the conflict since its beginning. Iran supports its long-term ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, thereby acting against its own regional rivals: Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was at the beginning the main driving force behind rise of Islamic extremism in the context of the conflict, because it supported religious fanatics and various rebel groups. Then Turks in Syria play their dirty game, the motive of which is to weaken Iran's influence in Syria, to remove not-so-friendly regime of President Assad and especially to suppress any military or political activity of Kurds, with whom Turkey fights intensely in its own territory.

What impact will the conquest of Mosul have on the situation in northern Iraq, particularly in relation to the involvement of various actors in the conflict?

Once Mosul is conquered, it will give a lot of prestige especially to the Iraqi army, which has not much to be proud of otherwise. The Iraqi army will thus get a key strongpoint to expand to the west and to liberate the rest of the country occupied by rebels. Kurds progressing from the north will very likely stay on their lines and will not move forward. The question is how the Iranian-controlled Iraqi Shiite militias will react – because in various situations they proved to be more capable than the standard Iraqi army. In the case of the conquest of Mosul, they stand aside, but they should not try to control the city, otherwise there could be a danger of outbreak of sectarian violence.

Do the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have resources to liberate Raqqa?

Not alone, but possibly with foreign support. The standard Syrian army will play its role as well because it is connected to a large number of combat-capable rebel forces. So the conquest of Raqqa is, similarly to the conquest of Mosul, only a matter of time.

How will the dispute between Turkey and the US regarding the involvement of SDF/YPG in the offensive impact the conquest of the city of Raqqa?

It will depend on what kind of support the Kurds in general will receive and how they use it. As long as they fight against the IS in Syria, Turkey cannot be expected to take some intense action against them because then it would indirectly support the IS, which is political suicide. However, we can definitely expect systematic undermining of all Kurdish organizations and their foreign support. Once the Kurds justify their place and the IS starts to fall apart, Turks will very likely sharpen their policy against the two groups. The advantage of the SDF is, that it presents itself as a multi ethnic group although the Kurdish element predominates, unlike the YPG which is pretty much a solely Kurdish group, though it is not as simple that here either. I would not be surprised if Turkey took a military action against them on a similar scale as against the PKK.

[The People's Protection Units (YPG) are the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that is related to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Ed.]

How will the dispute between the SDF and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) supported by Turkey develop?

Once these two groups meet at the frontline, they will definitely clash. These are the negative consequences of the Syrian civil war, where a large number of individual groups and organizations engage in fratricidal fights. I do not have a glass ball but one of the possible scenarios is a partial pragmatic alliance between the SDF and Bashar Assad against the FSA. But this is a lot of speculation.

[The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is one of the main actors in the Syrian civil war, Ed.]

 

"The sheer amount of evil that was done there has potential to keep the conflict in the region even after the collapse of IS."

 

How will the post-conflict reconstruction go in Iraq and Syria? Can we expect a dramatic change in policy?

This is really impossible to tell because it is not even clear yet who will direct, organize, fund and provide the post-conflict reconstruction. It is not clear whether there will be a unified Iraq in the future. This could be said about Syria as well. A lot will depend on which side will win and conquer most of the territory, but even then the civil war will not be over. The sheer amount of evil that was done there has potential to keep the conflict in the region even after the collapse of IS. The fate of the two countries is very unclear and there is a great amount of variables to answer this question in some way.

How will the civil war in Syria develop, assuming defeat of the Islamic State?

The IS will not be defeated to the last man. It will fall apart, transform, strengthen some other rebel groups etc. This means that there will be a brief power vacuum on the former territory of the IS that someone will have to fill. And there will be many interested parties, so the civil war will continue at least until one of the major actors dominates most of the territory. And the most likely actor so far is the standard Syrian army (with intensive Russian support), respectively President Bashar Assad. But nothing is certain, and I fear that the Syrian conflict will continue with various intensity for at least next several years.

Taking a closer look at the conflict in Syria: what happens after the conquest of Aleppo by Bashar Assad, who wants to use Aleppo as a springboard for the fight against terrorist groups (of all rebels, opposition forces and the IS)?

Aleppo may very well be compared to Mosul in Iraq. It's a very similar case – difficult and long conquest, great civilian casualties, the strategic role of the city serving as the figurative springboard. So we can take the answer regarding Mosul and adjust it to Syrian conditions, which means getting rid of rebels in the surrounding areas, especially towards the coast and Turkish borders, then turning to the east and progressing further.

[The city of Aleppo was conquered in last December, Ed.]

Assuming that all actors in Syria would acknowledge that Bashar Assad is unsuitable, is there a chance for a political solution to the civil war?

There is always a chance of course, but we are really moving into the realm of hypothetical scenarios now. The position of Bashar Assad is currently the strongest and the most stable in the last few years, so it is not easy at all to get rid of him, especially with intensive Russian and Iranian support. However, more important is that there is no-one to replace him. The only thing the anti-Assad camp agrees on is rejection of Bashar Assad as president of Syria, but it does not agree on the essential political topics, not to mention on a future leader of unified Syria. So even without the Bashar Assad persona, the civil war in the country would continue.

[On January 21, Mehmet Simsek, a Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, announced that Turkey can no longer condition a solution of the Syrian war by Bashar Assad's resignation, Ed.]

About author: Michaela Ceklová

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