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    Mideast Conflicts Flare Up as ISIS Fades

    Wall Street Journal | 2017-10-18 11:43:24
    Mideast Conflicts Flare Up as ISIS Fades

    Islamic State may still be around, but the Middle East has moved on.

    The extremist group’s ouster from its main remaining stronghold of Raqqa on Tuesday is a watershed moment. But, as Islamic State’s once vast territory has shrunk to a few dwindling pockets in eastern Syria and western Iraq, the region has become increasingly focused on new, different conflicts amid changing alliances.

    Now, it’s all about who will take advantage of the vacuum previously filled by Islamic State, and how.

    “The fall of ISIS is now seen as a fait accompli. There is no longer a common ground between forces that opposed it, and with the demise of ISIS a lot of new conflicts will flare up in the region,” said Basem Chabb, a Lebanese parliament member.

    Islamic State, of course, isn’t about to be completely eliminated anytime soon in Syria and Iraq, let alone its far-flung affiliates that reach from Libya to the Philippines. In fact, the extremist group is likely to lash out with renewed terrorist attacks in the region and the West, attempting to prove that it hasn’t been defeated. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, promised to continue the fight in a recording released last month.

    Yet the group is no longer in a position to reshape the map of the Muslim world.

    Ever since Islamic State’s rapid advances in 2014, the fight against the group created unusual alliances—including a de facto one between the U.S. and its regional nemesis Iran. The need to confront Islamic State also held in check the longstanding rivalries between some of the region’s main players.

    Nothing highlights the collapse of this temporary unity more than this week’s clash between Iraq’s central government and the country’s Kurds, the two forces that fought side-by-side against Islamic State to liberate the other major city the extremists held, Mosul, just a few months ago. Baghdad took control of the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk from Iraqi Kurdish forces on Monday after a brief fight, and seized several other strategic areas on Tuesday.

    Potential for a similar confrontation lurks across the Syrian border, too. Syrian Kurds, backed by the U.S., were the main force driving Islamic State out of Raqqa—which a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said had been 90% cleared—and before that out of a huge chunk of eastern Syria.

    Yet now, it is probable that they, too, would be subjected to an assault by their country’s central government. It’s unclear whether the U.S., which proclaimed neutrality in Iraq’s dispute with that nation’s Kurds, will do anything to protect its Syrian Kurdish allies if that happens.

    “The next conflict in Syria will be between the forces of the Syrian regime and the Syrian Kurds. These are the two major military powers left in the country now,” said Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian academic at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, a think tank in Qatar. “We may see in the next few months the repetition of what is going on in Kirkuk. And everyone is wondering whether the Americans will support the Kurdish forces in Syria in that case.”

    Other fractures, which emerged as Islamic State lost its sway, are sucking up the region’s attention and resources. Saudi Arabia and its allies the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt are locked in a struggle against the Persian Gulf monarchy of Qatar—a fight that has given Iran an extra foothold in the region and perplexed Western powers.

    Turkey—ostensibly America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally—is pursuing an escalating dispute with Washington that has already disrupted most travel between the two countries. Add to this Russia’s maneuvering for influence at the expense of the U.S., Iranian attempts to profit from Islamic State’s demise, and—more important—the lack, so far, of a coherent American policy for a post-Islamic State Middle East.

    “In its fight against extremism, in Iraq and the wider region, what the United State has done is really just temporarily stitching alliances without dealing with disputes and conflicts that we all knew would unravel once the threat of groups like ISIS weakens,” said Hassan Hassan, an expert on Islamic State at the Tahrir Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank. “The situation will only get worse as long as that approach continues to define American foreign policy in our region.”

    America’s key challenge going forward is going to be keeping hostility among its Middle Eastern allies in check.

    The disappearance of Islamic State as a de facto country, with territory, subject populations and natural resources, means that it’s no longer as dangerous to the region’s main players—allowing them to focus on squaring off against each other, be it in Iraqi Kurdistan or Qatar, said Hisham Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

    “The fact that Islamic State had territory meant that it threatened the very nature of the nation-states in the region,” Mr. Hellyer said. “When it turns into a group like al Qaeda, it becomes dangerous for other reasons. But these terrorist groups, in general, don’t threaten the very existence of the states.”  By Yaroslav Trofimov


    Keywords:  Raqqa Islamic State
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