After all the headlines about the supposed defeat of Isis, anyone who doesn’t believe a word of it may seem a bit of a spoilsport. But whenever I read that victory has been declared – whether it be of the Bush “mission accomplished” variety or the “last Isis stronghold about to fall” fantasy – I draw in my breath. Because you can make a safe bet that it’s not true.
Not just because the fighting around Baghouz is, in fact, still continuing outside the wrecked town. But because there are plenty of Isis fighters still under arms and ready to fight in the Syrian province of Idlib, along with their Hayat Tahrir al Sham, al-Nusra and al-Qaeda comrades – almost surrounded by Syrian government troops but with a narrow corridor in which they could escape to Turkey; always supposing that Sultan Erdogan will let them. There are Russian troop outposts inside these Islamist front lines, along with Turkish military forces but the tentative ceasefire which held for five months has become a lot more tenuous in the past few weeks.
Maybe it’s a failure of our institutional memory – or it’s just plain simpler to go along with the simplest story – but Idlib has for three years been the dumping ground of all Syria’s Islamist enemies, or at least the antagonists who didn’t surrender when they fled the big cities under Syrian and Russian bombardment.
Last September – though we seem to have forgotten this – Trump and the UN were warning of the impending “last battle” for Idlib, fearing – so they said – that the Syrians and Russians would use chemical weapons in their assault on Isis and its chums. Even the Syrian army announced the impending conflict, minus the chemicals, in a military website called “Dawn at Idlib”.
But I took a long trip around the Syrian front lines at Idlib, from the Turkish frontier then south, east and north again up to Aleppo and saw no tank convoys, no troop transporters, few Syrian helicopters, no supply trains and concluded – even as the warnings of final extinction continued – that this particular “last battle” was still a long way away. On the day I arrived south of Jisr al-Shughur, al-Nusra and Isis had fired a few mortars at Syrian army positions – the Syrians had fired a few shells back at them – but that was it.
A complicated truce agreement, involving both the Turks and the Russians, managed to forestall the carnage everyone predicted. There was much talk of the Isis, al-Nusra and al-Qaeda men – some of whom are Saudis – being shipped out by the Turks under a laissez passer to the wilds of Saudi Arabia for a little “re-education”. I always hoped this might be the woefully hot Empty Quarter where their superheated theology might be turned to a crisp.
But they are still in Idlib, happy no doubt to hear that the west thinks it has scored its “final victory” over Isis. The battle for Baghouz, of course, was always likely to pick up the headlines. The American air bombings and the presence of the friendly (and very brave) Kurds made this a more accessible – although still dangerous – story. And it switched attention away from other questions: like who invented the title “Syrian Democratic Forces” – which are in fact mostly Kurdish, many of whose members would prefer not to be thought of as Syrians, and whose ranks never enjoyed a democratic election in their lives.
If the Americans are in fact leaving at last, the Kurds are still going to be betrayed and left to the mercy of their enemies – be this Turkey or the Syrian regime (with whom the Kurds held some not very successful talks last year). A good time for the Americans, therefore, to call it a day outside Baghouz – a victorious one of course – and get the hell out. Hoping that the world will forget about Idlib.
But I don’t think it will. The Syrian war is not yet over – although that’s what the world (including, it seems, the Syrian government) believes. Idlib remains a land of tens of thousands of refugees as well as legions of fighters, a place of destitution, broken railways and blown-up motorways and Islamist groups who sometimes fight each other with more enthusiasm than they wish to fight the Syrian military.
But this will now be Russia’s chance to show it knows how to defeat Isis. There are contacts, of course, between Moscow and every group involved in the Syrian war. Isis fighters left Syrian cities over the past two years under Russian military protection. This could be repeated. Putin has allowed the Isis women and children to return home. There is still just a chance that Isis, Nusra/al-Qaeda and their comrades will be able to leave unharmed – although time suggests they may yet have to fight a real last battle for Idlib.
But even then, it might be a good idea to put a hold on our “victory” headlines.