Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Raqqa out of bounds

Syria’s Kurds have begun a campaign to take control of the city of Raqqa, the present capital of the Islamic State group, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

On 6 November, the Kurdish Democratic Syrian Forces (SDF) said they were preparing military operations in coordination with the US-led international coalition to liberate the city of Raqqa from the clutches of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

A spokesman for the SDF said the US had promised to supply them with advanced weapons and equipment, asserting that the “sole” forces that would undertake the mission would be SDF forces composed of Syrian and non-Syrian Kurdish fighters and ten per cent non-Kurdish allies.

The announcement has concerned Turkey in particular, since SDF forces are mostly composed of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) associated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is seen as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) listed by Turkey as a terrorist organisation.

Should the Kurdish Party take control of Raqqa, this will impact southeastern Turkey, the epicentre of battles between the Turkish army and the PKK.

Washington has sought to reassure Turkey that the liberation of Raqqa will most likely be at the hands of Arab forces and the city’s residents. US commanders have declared that involving local combatants will be “a key advantage” in the battle for Raqqa, and the head of the US joint chiefs of staff has visited Turkey to discuss the battle.

Turkish head of the joint chiefs of staff Hulusi Akar met his US counterpart Joseph Dunford earlier this week in the Turkish capital Ankara. No information was given about the meeting, but according to observers either the US made a deal to facilitate taking the town of Manbij in return for Turkish silence over Kurdish participation in the battle for Raqqa or it promised Turkey that it would in due course sink the Kurds.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish military campaign has started with the mobilisation of some 30,000 fighters, about 70 per cent of them Kurds from Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Fewer than ten per cent of the fighters are Arab Syrians.

A spokesman for the Kurdish forces said they would “erase the legend of the Islamic State group [and] sack the capital of international terrorism”.

The Kurds did not wait for Turkey’s approval or that of the Syrian opposition before launching their campaign. They ignored US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s warning that the battle for Raqqa “will not be easy” and could be a drawn-out campaign.

Dozens of Kurds have been killed in suicide attacks carried out by IS, and despite some doubts about the sincerity of US support in the fight for Raqqa Kurdish military sources have claimed there are some 50 US military advisers involved in the operations alongside the Kurds.

The international coalition had sent convoys loaded with military equipment and logistical and relief aid to support the Kurds, the sources said. However, the armed Syrian opposition has criticised the Kurdish campaign, describing it as a “media war” that is not entirely supported by the US.

There are at least three camps trying to take control of Raqqa: the Kurds with unknown amounts of US support; the armed Syrian opposition factions supported by Turkey and with support on the ground; and the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which through its ally Russia is also trying to win the battle for Raqqa in order to be recognised as a partner in combatting terrorism.

Taking control of Raqqa would assist the regime in regaining some of its legitimacy in the international arena and the control of the Euphrates Dam which supplies large parts of Syria with electricity.

Fouad Aaliko, a member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, believes the issue of which groups will fight for Raqqa “is undecided, despite statements by SDF officials that they are the ones who will join the battle”.

Aaliko said that Turkey had refused to countenance the participation of the Kurds, but that the US was trying to include them. Meanwhile, Russia has been siding with the US. “The Americans are undecided about supporting the Kurds or the Turkey-backed armed opposition groups,” he said. “They don’t want to lose Turkey, but they also want the Kurds to participate in the battle.”

The Syrian opposition does not understand why the US insists on supporting the Kurds in Raqqa, especially since international groups have documented how the Kurds forced the displacement of Arabs and Turkmen and changed the demography of areas in Hasaka and Aleppo in northern Syria when they were fighting in these areas.

There is a sense that the US has been treating Sunni Arabs in the region as if they all belonged to IS, and there have been allegations of direct or indirect cooperation between Washington and Tehran to destabilise both Iraq and Syria by targeting these countries’ Sunni populations.

Days before the Raqqa campaign was announced, Carter met with US military commanders and told them that the attack on Raqqa would begin soon, but several senior US officers said they had been taken by surprise and doubted that the operation could begin because of the complex situation in Syria.

The battle for Raqqa should not start before 2017, they said, since it would need the international coalition to isolate the city through air strikes on IS locations and block supply routes to it.

While SDF forces number some 30,000, a substantial portion of these are not trained and could be easy targets for IS. As a result, some see the operation as a joint US and Turkish attempt to use the Kurds as fodder in a preliminary campaign against IS, especially since Raqqa is in an entirely Arab region where there is no Kurdish presence.

The area is an environment friendly to the armed Arab opposition groups and Turkey-backed factions.

“The battle for Raqqa will be in two phases,” Iyad Barakat of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) said. “First, isolating Raqqa from its surroundings and blocking supply routes, weapons and fighters from reaching it. This will be done by the SDF. Second, liberating Raqqa itself and taking control of the city. The Kurds will have no role in this whatsoever.”

Barakat told Al-Ahram Weekly that “we have been given reassurances, as have the Turks, that no one will enter Raqqa except Arab forces. The Kurds will not be allowed to enter the city. In return, the US will remain silent about the Kurds remaining east of the Euphrates River.”

 “The Kurds may not abide by US instructions, perhaps because of incitements by Russia or Iran or their conspiring with the regime. If that happens, their losses will be greater than they may think. Hostilities are high on all sides, and there is no common denominator,” he said.

The Kurds may be allowed to participate in the battle for Raqqa, but on the strict condition that they withdraw after the battle is concluded. All the forces in the region are racing to participate in the battle for Raqqa, not in order to liberate its people from IS, but instead to fill the vacuum that will result from expelling IS from the city and expand the areas under their control.

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