Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Raqqa battle on hold

US-backed Kurds have launched an offensive for control of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State group in Syria, but it seems as if the major battle is yet to come, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The eyes of local and international parties with a stake in the Syrian conflict have turned to Raqqa, the northern town that after five years of war has become the capital of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Despite the keen interest and the media’s trumpeting of the beginning of the battle to liberate the town, however, it seems clear that IS will not be expelled from Raqqa at the present stage.

Over the last two weeks troops with the US-led international coalition have dropped leaflets over Raqqa calling on civilians to leave the town. Drones were sent in to carry out surveillance to identify IS headquarters, positions and camps in the town, after which the coalition began air strikes on the outskirts.

While the air strikes killed civilians, they had no impact on the IS fighters, who have continued their daily combat mostly unfazed. The only change on the ground has been the increased fortification of the IS headquarters in the town and the digging of trenches around other towns. Tens of thousands of Raqqa residents also fled before IS prohibited the population from leaving, closing down exits and essentially using the residents as human shields.

Regime forces now surround the town from the south, supported by a division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and thousands of pro-Iranian Iraqi and Lebanese sectarian militias. The opposition Syrian Democratic Forces are in the east, made up largely of Kurds who aspire to a separate Kurdish federal region in northern Syria. In the east and west, factions of the Arab-backed and US-approved armed Syrian opposition are deployed.

General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command in the Middle East (CENTCOM), visited northern Syria and met with the Syrian Democratic Forces to affirm US support for the Kurds. On 24 May, Kurdish forces initiated military operations amid conflicting statements from the Kurds, indicating they had no clear plan or strategy.

Initially, the Kurds declared they intended to take Raqqa, but the next day they qualified this statement, saying they only sought to take control of part of its northern outskirts. They said they would not enter the town and would leave that to allied Arab and tribal forces, perhaps realising they would not receive a warm welcome. Residents have questioned these statements, however, knowing that the slender Arab forces allied with the Kurds will be unable to take the town on their own.

During their advance the Kurdish forces burned villages and farms, claiming they were largely uninhabited and accusing IS of setting fire to them before its retreat. Gharib Hissou, a representative of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union in Iraq, announced that after its liberation the Kurds would also annex Raqqa to their federal region.

This has received no support from the majority of Syrians, either from the opposition or the regime, since the idea was first floated in March, and regional forces have also rejected the idea, seeing it as a prelude to the partition of Syria.

Raqqa residents are wary of the Kurds taking control of their town, having seen them engage in repression, expulsions and forced demographic changes in other Syrian cities. They also fear the indiscriminate air strikes of the international coalition and its seeming lack of concern for the half million civilians left in Raqqa.

“After people learned of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces’ intention to take the town and annex it to the federal state, some 2,250 people from 38 villages on the frontlines with the Kurdish forces joined IS,” activist Mohamed Al-Saleh, director of the Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered group, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The Syrian opposition is wondering why the Americans are relying on Kurdish separatist forces rather than the factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that are all over northern Syria and are involved in the Geneva negotiations. The US says it is coordinating with some of these factions and has fought against the inclusion of others on designated terrorist lists.

While the Syrian opposition wants to eliminate IS, an organisation that has fought it, distorted its revolution and facilitated most of the regime’s military operations, it is not pleased with the Kurdish military actions, seeing their ultimate objective as the creation of a Kurdish canton in northern Syria.

The opposition has thus stood up against the Kurds. Turkey has also stood up against the Kurdish actions, saying that the US is tampering with the fate of the region and allying itself with terrorists, an allusion to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is subordinate to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is designated a terrorist group in Turkey.

Russia offered to coordinate with the US in the battle for Raqqa but the White House turned the offer down, saying that coordination with Russia in Syria involved little more than avoiding collisions between the two countries’ aircraft. The Syrian opposition also offered to help to retake Raqqa but the US was unenthusiastic, preferring that those supporting the mission join the Kurdish forces.

Although the Kurds have been receiving support from the US, Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime, they seemed to flag after taking villages and farms on the outskirts of Raqqa. After sustaining significant casualties, they quickly backtracked on their intention to annex the town to the federal region, saying the town’s fate would be up to its inhabitants.

Instead, they said, their objective now was to cut IS’s supply route from Turkey. It was also announced that the liberation of the town would take place over several phases, demonstrating that the Kurds have no firm plans and that the media spin for the battle of Raqqa was more momentous than the battle itself.

According to the US, 3,000 to 5,000 IS fighters are deployed in Raqqa, a relatively small number when compared to the 15,000 Kurdish troops the US can deploy, along with an even greater number of Syrian opposition fighters. But the US is holding off in the campaign because the major offensive against IS “has not yet begun,” according to the US’s military spokesman Colonel Steve Warren.

All local and international parties active in Syria hope to reach the IS capital before each other. Whoever liberates the town from the scourge of IS and enters first will automatically be hailed as the vanquisher of the terrorist organisation and a key player in determining the future of Syria. But the Syrian opposition believes that this will not happen soon because the US intends to deny this honour to everyone else.

In March 2013, Raqqa was the first town to be liberated from the Syrian regime by FSA fighters. At the time, its infrastructure had not been laid to waste, as was the case with other towns and cities. But IS gave the opposition no rest. Setting aside its ostensibly undying enmity for the Syrian regime, it worked to force opposition fighters out of the town, having realised that the town had resources that could it could use.

Raqqa is near the Euphrates Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in Syria, as well as crops, borders offering entry to Turkey and several oil fields, and proximity to Iraq. IS took Raqqa in January 2014 after expelling the FSA, declaring the town to be the capital of its would-be state.

The Syrian regime has also had its eye on the town, allowing it to pose as the fighter against terrorism that it has always claimed to be. What seems astonishing, however, is the magnitude of the Iranian interest in Raqqa and the number of Iranian fighters and militias arrayed around it.

The Iranian interest can be explained by the fact that the Iranians call Raqqa “the jewel in the Safavid crown,” in recognition of its importance for the advance of Shiism.

Russia hopes to expel IS and take the town but it knows the Americans will not allow it to do so. The US is planning to make the battle for Raqqa the mother of all battles and a lesson to others that the US knows how to finish the job.

The armed Syrian opposition wants control of Raqqa in order to turn it into a safe zone in cooperation with the international coalition or Turkey, which in turn hopes that its support of the armed opposition will forestall the establishment of a Kurdish federal state.

Present information suggests that expelling IS from Raqqa will not be difficult, especially since the local population is against the group. What is holding things up is the question of who will be permitted to front the operation, even though it is clear that no one will be allowed to assume sole control of the town and no party will be able to boast that it alone conquered the capital of IS.

It seems that the US has vetoed the idea of anyone else taking the honour of liberating Raqqa. Its actions with its Kurdish ally are tactical manoeuvres meant to confirm that only the US can determine the fate of this part of Syria.

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