Recent US estimates have suggested that IS has lost nearly 98% of its 2014-15 territory. This has denied the group a large proportion of its resources in the region. But given its desire to maintain a strong international presence and position amongst global Islamic militants, IS has widened its tactical arsenal by employing new technologies and increasing its ties to local Islamist networks. With an estimated 10,000 fighters still believed to be in Syria, there is still a large capacity for violence.
As alluded to earlier, AQ has also established a strong network in Syria, with the number of fighters estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000. In fact, Idlib has been described as the largest AQ haven since Afghanistan. With a base in Syria, AQ can threaten American interests in the Levant, Europe, and US allies in Jordan and Israel. But the threat permeates beyond Syria, with multiple points of entrenched strength across the Middle East and Africa (including Yemen, Libya and Somalia) providing AQ with relative safe havens and a springboard to launch strikes against the West.
The competing agendas of various external parties are also complicating the situation in the region. Iran’s growing involvement is a potential threat to Saudi Arabia and Israel whilst Sunni militias are equally a danger to Iran and the Shia crescent. Kurdish forces, meanwhile, have been met with a backlash from Turkey. For Israel, Iran’s freedom of action to deploy proxies and its own combat forces across Syria and other strategically important areas is troubling. There is now a possible front line with Iran on Israel’s borders, and the strategic depth the country has hitherto enjoyed from geography has been eroded by Iranian missile capabilities.
The future of Syria will, of course, be heavily influenced by the wider strategic agendas of Russia and the United States. Russia, with military and strategic interests in Syria, has conducted a successful campaign and supplanted the influence of the US. Russia is now crucial to the stability of the region owing to its positioning with neighbouring powers. The experience gained in Syria (as well as Crimea and Ukraine) of weaponising information operations, cyber and CBRN has given Russia confidence to test the West. Whilst the US successfully supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to retake IS-held territory, the post-IS phase has left the US as more of an onlooker. Indeed, the US is now conflicted on two fronts: between intervening against the Assad regime and risk escalating tensions with Russia or continuing to support the SDF and further fracturing diplomatic relations with Turkey.
With multiple conflicting and contradictory agendas in a conflict maintained by external parties, the situation in Syria is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. Political violence, terrorism and allied war perils are therefore likely to emanate from Syria for some time to come.
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