Who will be the sword in Syria?

Image Credit: DVIDSHUB (Flickr: Creative Commons)

As the battle to retake the city of Mosul in Iraq intensifies, the future of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq as a territory holding organisation grows increasingly bleak. As a result, we have seen a return in traditional terrorist tactics. Like Al-Qaeda before it, IS in Iraq has begun its devolution into a more familiar form.

While unlikely to be the end of the group, the loss of Mosul will be a major blow to its global appeal, whilst providing Iraqi and Kurdish forces a significant mile stone at the culmination of a costly siege.

As the ground war in Iraq appears to be entering its apex, the situation in Syria only grows more complex. In his recent article, Matthew Wilson makes a compelling argument as to why the use of Turkey as the primary force against IS in Syria will potentially do more harm than good. This raises an important question, exactly who will it be leading the fight against IS in Syria?

In Iraq, we have a government willing to work with the US led coalition, whose ground forces are being trained and mentored by coalition partners, backed up by coalition air strikes and special forces. In addition, Kurdish forces have been invaluable in providing additional ground forces to the fight, being one of the few units that opposed the initial IS assault when regular Iraqi forces broke and fled.

Even despite these factors the battle for Iraq has been a slow and arduous process. Iraqi forces attempting to take Mosul alone have suffered heavy casualties in some of the most intense urban warfare seen since World War II.

Reports of reprisal attacks against civilian populations by Iraqi security forces are also complicating the process of restoring the peoples trust in government in liberated areas.

Compounding these issues there remains the underlying tension between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. Distrustful of one another even before the rise of IS, new concerns are arising in relation to territory liberated by Kurdish forces that were lost by the Iraqi government to IS during its initial expansion.

Syria on the other hand, is a very different beast. The Assad regime, a brutal dictatorship, backed by Russia, faces off against both Islamic State and an opposition made up of dozens of different factions, ranging from secular moderates to religious extremists, and on top of that resides the Kurdish population, themselves engaged in fighting against both the Syrian government and IS. Deciding just who should take the lead could be as complicated as the war itself.

Option A, to more fully commit to the backing of Syrian rebel groups. Currently, the US is backing groups that fall under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). One group – the Syrian Arab Coalition – currently numbers around 23,000 fighters, a key figure as Wilson also points out in his article, as US commanders calculate the number of fighters needed to retake Raqqa alone could be 12,000 to 15,000.

The backing of ethnic Arab forces over a purely Kurdish unit would also potentially alleviate concerns over ethnic clashes, with Raqqa and the surrounding region having a predominantly Arab population.

However, concerns over how Russia would view such groups must be considered. Should these groups defeat IS they would inevitably turn their attention to the Russian backed Assad government. It seems unlikely that Russia would allow the training and arming of significant numbers of rebels to go in unchallenged.

The backing of Syrian rebel groups has also had consequences in the past. Reservations about the loyalty of such groups are not unfounded, with reports of US-backed groups aligning with extremist groups leaving many concerned about the reliability of such fighters.

On the other hand, while Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria have proven to be effective in battling IS, arming and equipping them in Syria would have a negative impact on the West’s already strained relationship with Turkey.

Doing so may only add fuel Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric. The recent referendum results changing the Turkish constitution may have handed him a victory, but by a much slimmer margin than he would probably have liked. The arming of Kurdish forces, whom Turkey sees as terrorists themselves, would be a political boon for Erdogan, allowing him to further cement his position. It so could also lead to a further crack down on the Kurdish minority in Turkey, already facing increased pressure by the government in recent years.

Despite how effective the Kurds have been in the fight against IS, it will be hard to sell backing them over the wishes of a geographically strategic, NATO alliance member.

Deciding just who we should be backing in the fight against IS could be less about which side is less likely to bite the hand feeding them, as it is the side least likely to bite deepest.

Ruairidh Boyd is an International Studies student at the University of Adelaide, with an interest in global security, conflict and counter-terrorism.