Strategist Six: Jonathan Spyer

Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature providing a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.

The freeing of most of Iraq and Syria, including Mosul and Raqqa, from the Islamic State terror group is very significant but it clearly doesn’t signal the end of IS. We’ve seen its influence as far away as Marawi in the Philippines. To what extent is IS still a threat in the Middle East and further afield, such as in the Asia and the Pacific?

Recent events in Albukamal in Syria, and in the Hawija area in Iraq, show that IS may be almost defunct as a quasi–state entity but that it remains very much a force as an insurgency. None of the potential outcomes in Iraq or Syria look set to lead to an improved situation for the Sunni Arab population of those countries. So there will be scope for continued IS recruitment and it’s clear that IS retains an organisational infrastructure, money and the will to be active. So IS remains a threat in terms of its potential for terror activity. At the same time, the experience of the last four years shows the political ineptitude of Salafi jihadi movements including IS. Hence, it is unlikely to constitute a major political or diplomatic presence, but will remain a significant and dangerous terrorist force.

In terms of the regime’s war against the Syrian rebellion, has that been won, how much has it changed that nation and what comes next? In the case of both Iraq and Syria, will we see new conflicts rising out of the old? Will President Bashar al-Assad be able to shake free of his saviours in the shape of Iran and Russia? Are they both in Syria to stay? How serious are the attempts of Iran and the Syrian regime you described to mobilise opposition to the US and its allies in eastern Syria?

The Syrian rebellion as an independent insurgent force is in the process of being defeated. A regime offensive in the southwest is currently beginning. It is likely to end in rebel defeat. This was the last independent enclave of the rebels. However, a large Turkish-guaranteed enclave in the northwest remains, as well as a US-guaranteed desert enclave around the al-Tanf base. I think competition between foreign powers which may also take a violent form is what is taking place now in Syria. Iran, Turkey, Russia, Israel and the US are all players. The attempt to mobilise opposition to the US in eastern Syria is still in its early stages, but it’s likely to gather momentum in the period ahead. Neither the regime nor Iran will readily acquiesce to the US presence. So if the US choses to stay, it will encounter opposition.

What are the main impacts on, and benefits of, the wars in Iraq and Syria to Iran, Russia, Turkey and the US? Where does the fighting leave the Kurds and will they benefit from their significant role in defeating IS? You’ve mentioned that their agenda is very different from the Americans’.

Iran emerges as a major earner from both wars, which have strengthened its hand in both countries. Similarly, Russia has achieved its goals in Syria. Turkey is seeking to use both wars to strengthen its own presence in both countries and now has a military presence in both. The US is the main victor in the war against IS, but must now decide how to react to the strengthened Iranian hand in both countries, given the US administration’s opposition to Iranian expansion. For the Kurds in Syria, much will depend on whether they and their allies can make a case in the US for a remaining US presence in eastern Syria. If US air cover over this area remains, then the autonomous Kurdish area will survive. If it’s removed, the Kurds will need to make a deal with the regime or face a regime invasion.

What have the wars in Iraq and Syria meant for Israel in terms of making friends and enemies? Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning that Israel will strike against Iranian efforts to entrench itself militarily throughout Syria realistic and achievable? Do you have a view on the impact of the US decision to pull out of the JCPOA? Why does Iran want nuclear weapons—to defend itself? To destroy Israel?

The emergence of the Shia militias in Iraq introduces the possibility of their being used in a future war against Israel, given Iranian access to and presence in Syria. I think Iran wants nuclear weapons to acquire an insurance policy for its continued actions to advance its strength in the region, which can only come at the expense of the US and its allies in the region. I think Israel will continue to take action to disrupt Iran’s attempts to consolidate its presence in Syria. Re the JCPOA, the issue now is whether the US will develop an integrated strategy including renewed sanctions for the containment of Iran, and whether Iran itself will now exit the JCPOA.

Given its extensive operations in Iraq and Syria, what is Iran’s ultimate goal? Does it hope to dominate the Middle East? And to what extent have groups it used, such as Hezbollah, been strengthened or weakened by their involvement in the fighting?

Iran seeks a contiguous area of Iranian control from the Iraq–Iran border to the Mediterranean Sea, and to replace the US as the dominant force in the Gulf. The result for Hezbollah has been mixed. It has lost a considerable number of personnel (around 2,000 people). But its cadres have also gained experience in fighting in urban areas and fighting in areas not familiar to them.

Given your extensive coverage of the Middle East, do you see any prospect for peace there?

I think there are many unresolved conflicts in the region, which remains beset by poor governance and by powerful factors militating against successful development. So peace is unlikely across large parts of the region in the near future.