Daesh in decline but rural insurgency worries persist, lawmakers told

Halifax, Canada, 16 November 2018 - Daesh is almost eradicated as a territorial threat in Syria and Iraq but the extremist group is waging a rural insurgency in the conflict-riven countries that must be addressed, parliamentarians from NATO nations, the Middle East and North Africa were told Friday.

Despite impressive political and social gains, Iraq remains vulnerable, while Syria’s conflict has mutated into a largely geopolitical conflict between international and regional powers, experts told the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group (GSM).

“ISIS is all but eradicated as a territorial entity in Syria, with the exception of a few pockets. But what we’re seeing is a transition to a kind of rural insurgency that spans the Iraqi and Syrian landscapes,” said Faysal Itani, from the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, Atlantic Council.

More than seven years after President Bashar Al-Assad’s security forces began crushing a national uprising, Itani said, “we’re moving to a phase where the Syrian conflict is defined by geopolitical competition between international rivals more than anything else.”

He said this is due in part to the U.S. strategy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran – which is heavily invested in Syria – but also to Turkey’s aim of ensuring that the conflict creates no more refugees, most of whom have been fleeing to its territory, but also to Jordan, Lebanon and the European Union.

To do that, Itani said, Turkey is investing itself in ceasefire moves, but it also needs the goodwill of Russia to guarantee that the Assad regime Moscow backs does not attack Turkish held areas.

Loulouwa Al Rachid, from the Carnegie Middle East Center, was also upbeat about Iraq’s security now that ISIS has been mostly defeated, but she underlined that the government in Baghdad remains fragile. 

“The possibility of a veritable armed opposition, capable of mobilizing entire regions of the country against the post-Baathist political order is today ruled out. That possibility no longer exists,” Al Rachid said, during the Ad Hoc GSM session on the sidelines of the NATO PA’s 64th annual session in Canada.

But she warned that “Iraq remains a vulnerable country and potentially unstable.”
Public authority has been weakened by militia groups; racketeering, crime and corruption are rife; and the government is struggling to run the country, with a lack of centralized control from Baghdad, she said.

The head of Iraq’s delegation to the NATO PA, Basher Khalil Tofiq, said the government has made important progress given the destruction after years of insurgency and sectarian strife, he appealed to NATO allies and the West to remain engaged there despite the defeat of Daesh.

“Our people call on the entire world and its countries in the post-ISIS stage to support Iraq economically and security-wise in order to restore the infrastructure that has been destroyed in the battles while fighting terrorism,” he said.

The GSM provides a forum for parliamentarians from NATO countries and the Middle East and North Africa to discuss political and security issues and to boost cooperation. It was launched in 1996 as a formal mechanism to address regional challenges, and engage leaders their in constructive dialogue.