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  June 22, 2017

ISIS Flees Raqqa, Trump and Putin Escalate the War

With the potential defeat of ISIS in Syria, the U.S. and Russia are stepping up their operations in an effort to fill the likely power vacuum, says Chris Davidson, a Reader of Middle East politics at Durham University in the UK
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SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The fighting in Syria is intensifying with the US and Russia stepping up its operations. The Russians claimed last week that they had bombed an ISIS caliphate council meeting that was taking place in the northern outskirts of Raqqa where the leader al-Baghdadi was present.

In the US-led coalition attack on the city of Raqqa, the US downed a warplane of the Syrian air force. The US claimed that the Syrian airplane was bombing US coalition forces. In response, Moscow has now issued a warning that it would treat any US-led coalition plane flying west of the Euphrates River as a potential target.

The US is also accused of using white phosphorus in bombing raids, a substance banned by the United Nations in heavily populated areas, a substance that the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights describes as a incendiary and toxic chemical substance which can burn through the skin penetrating internal organs and for which there is no antidote.

Meanwhile, Iran has launched missiles into eastern Syria against ISIS targets claiming that this is in retaliation for the attacks against the Khomeini mausoleum and the Iranian Parliament on June 7th.

With us to discuss these developments and more is Christopher Davidson. He is a reader in Middle East politics at Durham University in England. He's the author of several books on the Middle East including Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East. Professor Davidson, thank you for joining us today.

CHRIS DAVIDSON: Many thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Professor, several lines have been crossed in the last couple of days such as the US air dropping troops and downing a Syrian plane, Iran launching missiles into Syria, and the Russians tracking US planes as targets. Why is the escalation occurring now? Does it have anything to do with, hopefully, the war coming to an end?

CHRIS DAVIDSON: In many ways, this has to do with the very rapid collapse of the ISIS regime. We've had ISIS for the past few years serving as a sort of placeholder in many parts of eastern and northern Syria. Now with their imminent collapse is the very real possibility of a vacuum forming. Those powers there, including the United States, including Britain and so on, and of course Russia and Iran, all have a vested interest in trying to rush to fill that vacuum if they're going to have a strong hand at the table when the time comes to inevitably have to partition the former state of Syria.

SHARMINI PERIES: What happens the day after the Islamic forces are pushed out of Raqqa, and they have control of that city and region. What do you think will happen next?

CHRIS DAVIDSON: As far as the Syrian government is concerned, these are forces backed by foreign powers, whether it is the United States, Turkey, or elsewhere. So it's got a real problem on its hands. It can't liberate parts of the country which have fallen to ISIS that are then being taken over by other groups including these rebel groups. So we've got a real sort of conundrum viewed through the lens of international law. The recent story, for example, of the United States shooting down a Syrian government aircraft, which was after all flying over Syrian state airspace, is really into the realms of an international law dispute.

SHARMINI PERIES: Professor Davidson, the question on everyone's mind these days is did the Russians succeed in killing ISIS leader al-Baghdadi? If they did, do we have any evidence, and what will the impact be on ISIS?

CHRIS DAVIDSON: Unfortunately, there's no real way to verify it. I'm sure that applies to the Russians, too. I think we have to bear in mind over the past couple of years, there have been several claims that he's been killed. The Iraqi government, for example, has made this claim. The Syrian government has made this claim.

Clearly, whoever wants to make the claim wants to take some sort of credit for it. It's a scalp, if you like. But also, if one can give out the message that he's been killed, it's perhaps expected that it will be very demoralizing for those remaining ISIS jihadists currently holed up in Mosul in Iraq or those holed up in Raqqa in northern Syria. In other words, if you can claim that their leader is gone, perhaps the remainder of the forces are more likely to surrender.

SHARMINI PERIES: Some of the reports, particularly from the Russian press, claimed that some of the leadership was also at this council meeting and, therefore, they had succeeded in wiping out some of the leadership that would step in if Baghdadi were killed. We don't know. Any thoughts on that?

CHRIS DAVIDSON: Again, it's very difficult to verify. Several actors in the region want to certainly make this case that they decapitated as it were the top strand of ISIS leadership. What I think we need to bear in mind is that ISIS is perhaps being a little bit cleverer than al-Qaeda and other such organizations in the way it's visually presented its overall leader, in this case al-Baghdadi. We've only really had one video that's been broadcast with him in it, the sermon he delivered in Mosul nearly three years ago. Other than that, we've had to rely on audio messages. So we don't really have many visual clues as to his appearance beyond that video, that infamous video where he's garbed in the black cloak with a large black beard.

If we contrast that to bin Laden, as soon as bin Laden stopped appearing in regular videos, his following soon started to drift away and perhaps question the health of their leader. ISIS doesn't really seem to be suffering from that problem. If al-Baghdadi does disappear from public sight for a while, and he could well easily come back in another form in the future, especially if this isn't just one man, if this is an actor as it were amongst ISIS' ranks that can be put forward as their leader.

SHARMINI PERIES: Meanwhile, there is some concern that pushing ISIS out of Raqqa will actually increase the number of ISIS operatives' plannings and execution of attacks in Western cities, and many of those attacks have happened actually in the UK. Is there a fear of that?

CHRIS DAVIDSON: Yes, I think so. I think in Western Europe, we certainly already have some idea that several hundred French, Belgian, British, German, et cetera jihadists that had gone over to Turkey and then crossed the border into Syria to join ISIS and other such groups have already returned home. Clearly, this is a big security dilemma for the Western intelligence services, and it's already a good indication that such individuals have already begun to orchestrate attacks here in the West.

Of course, what we have to bear in mind that these hundreds, these thousands of such Westerners were in many ways given a blind eye over the past three or four years. They were essentially allowed to travel to this region in order to join ISIS. Because we have to be frank about it, back in 2013, 2014, groups like ISIS were essentially attacking our enemies in the region, notably the government of Syria.

SHARMINI PERIES: President Trump is giving the US Armed Forces a lot of freedom to plan and execute attacks as they see fit. The military will rely on military tools to achieve political goals and thereby cause this war to escalate, and that is actually coming true. There seems to be a way in which the US military is just, what some would call running a havoc in the country. Do you see evidence of that?

CHRIS DAVIDSON: I think there are two things going on here. I think for the past few years under the previous US administration that ISIS was seen, although it was discussed very much as an existential threat, it was not actually dealt with as an existential threat. It was something of a, to my mind at least, a contain and react strategy being used on it. As long as it was primarily fighting the Syrian government or various other groups that the United States and its closest allies wished to see destroyed, then ISIS was allowed to survive for at least a few years. Now, I think we have a new administration in the United States that's more serious about actually eradicating it, helping us understand the very dramatic advances into ISIS territory that we've seen by US-supported allies on the ground in the past few months.

But I think the other side to this story as well is one connected to the domestic politics of the United States. I think we have a president here unlike previous presidents who hasn't enjoyed a particularly warm relationship with United States intelligence services or indeed the US Department of State. Instead, I think we've had a US president that's really tried to carve out a new constituency, in particular a much stronger support base within the US military giving it much freer rein to do what it wants in the region. In many ways, I think we'd have to go all the way back to President Eisenhower to see a similarly sort of carte blanche relationship being established between a US president and the Department of Defense.

SHARMINI PERIES: Indeed. Professor, one very important thing is that the UN at this time is warning that there is such a huge escalation of displaced people and civilians in the way of all that's going on. What can you tell us about this humanitarian crisis?

CHRIS DAVIDSON: Of course, this is the great human tragedy angle to this story. It's unlikely to go down any time soon unfortunately. I think what we've seen very much is that the Syrian crisis has been effectively on the doorstep of Europe. Many refugees, of course, have immediately gotten themselves into Turkey. As far as the Turkish authorities are concerned, they will pass them through as quickly as possible to the borders of Bulgaria and Greece to make them Europe's problem rather than Turkey's problem.

But we shouldn't forget there are huge crises elsewhere in the Arab world, including Yemen, including Libya. It's just much harder for those refugees to get to Europe, to get to the West, and to grab the headlines here in the same way that the poor Syrians have.

SHARMINI PERIES: Professor, in terms of the Russian involvement and the escalation that's going on, to what end? Obviously, the Russians are working with the Assad government, and the Americans still are articulating in some ways a regime change in the country?

CHRIS DAVIDSON: Yes. I think from Russia's perspective, they are honoring an alliance with a nation-state government, and their presence in the country is at the behest of the government in Syria. Whether we like that government in Syria or not, that's the international law of it. From the US' perspective, their intervention, their presence within the borders of the state of Syria is, by any measure, completely illegal. They're sort of ramping up of the pressure here.

The recent escalation, the shooting down of the Syrian aircraft is clearly designed to make sure that US allies on the ground including their Kurdish allies, the remnants of the Free Syrian Army and so on hang on to as much territory as possible when ISIS and various other jihadists groups inevitably collapse. We're looking at a scenario really where we have a sort of partition of Syria over the next few years, and very sadly, it may spell the end of the Syrian nation-state with the borders that existed for now more than half a century.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Professor, I thank you so much for joining us today and looking forward to having you back on The Real News Network.


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