The Islamic State (IS) group announced this week that its leader had been killed in Syria, while the US-backed group that destroyed its so-called caliphate in the country said it was halting all counter-terrorism operations.
This was not because ISIS was no longer a threat, but because the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces – a group Ankara itself has described as terrorists – have faced sustained Turkish bombardment and the threat of another invasion.
Furious over a bombing in Istanbul blamed on Kurdish militants, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised his tanks and soldiers would soon cross the border to “exterminate” Kurdish forces, which Ankara describes as terrorists, who are using the banned Communicate with Kurdistan Workers Party.
Since 2016, Turkey and its proxies have launched three such raids against Kurdish militants to create a 320km buffer zone along their border. Its last major operation in 2019 was halted by Russia brokering a ceasefire. When Mr Erdogan threatened an invasion in April last year, the combined threat of US sanctions and continued urging from Russia and Iran were enough to halt his plans.
It’s different this time. Russia, a key source of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2015, is now preoccupied with his disastrous invasion of Ukraine.
Turkey, meanwhile, calculates that it can pursue its ambitions in Syria more freely, since Ankara is suddenly indispensable to the West again.
As a NATO member, Turkey can block or join Finland and Sweden from joining the defense alliance. Likewise, Turkish military support to Ukraine, particularly the pioneering Bayraktar TB2 drones, makes the US less willing to challenge Ankara.
“They are now able to exploit that,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the New Lines Institute.
Mr Erdogan appears comfortable enough with his heightened influence to announce that his Syrian offensive would begin “at the opportune moment” – leading observers to wonder if he was simply trying to strengthen his nationalist base ahead of the elections in Syria to mobilize next June, which is expected to be closely opposed.
In contrast, the United States, Russia and the Syrian government have issued relatively mild rebuffs.
The United States, which supports the SDF in the Northeast, has “urged immediate de-escalation” and warned that Turkish airstrikes “directly threatened the safety of” some 1,000 American soldiers stationed in Syria.
Amid reports that over a dozen Syrian soldiers have been killed in Turkish attacks over the past week, Ayman Sousan, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, called Turkey’s escalation “unacceptable” but urged “cooperation”.
With its forces stuck in Ukraine, Russia is likely to have reduced its Syrian deployment by two or more battalions — at least 1,200 men — Western diplomats and an Israeli official said recently New York Times.
According to an official with the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Damascus feels exposed.
A Damascus resident said Russian convoys are much less visible in the capital’s streets than before, leaving many in government-controlled areas afraid of being abandoned.
Amid the instability, everyone came as a surprise when ISIS announced this week that its leader Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi had been killed in Syria. It named a previously unknown character as the new leader, the group’s fourth in three years.
But if another leader’s death points to a terrorist group on the ropes, a Turkish invasion could give it the breathing space it needs to recover, General Mazloum Abdi, the head of the SDF, said at a news conference.
But for the time being, Turkey was still assessing the reaction of the United States and Russia. “We’re still nervous. We need stronger, more solid declarations to stop Turkey,” Gen Abdi said.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/middle-east/fears-islamic-state-could-rise-again-in-syria-as-russia-takes-its-eye-off-conflict-42194908.html Fears that the Islamic State could rise again in Syria as Russia loses sight of the conflict