For the past month or so, northern Syria has been the scene of a lot of muscle flexing, between the Russians and Americans, the Iranians and Turks, the Kurds and Arabs, the regime and opposition. They have all been jockeying for a piece of the Raqqa cake. They all want to appear as a hero in the eyes of their own people by planting the victory flag in the town that IS (the Islamic State group) calls its capital, showing their power to eliminate the emirate of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Of course, they also want to increase the territory under their control in northern Syria and to advance their own objectives.
Last week, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) announced that its forces now overlooked Raqqa after several skirmishes with IS fighters while coalition military aircraft carried out raids against the city and around-the-clock combing operations along the combat lines on the outskirts of the city. At the same time, Syrian forces together with militias affiliated with Iran scored a very easy breakthrough against IS’s outer defences, bringing them, too, closer to the city. All this led around 100,000 civilians in the vicinity of Raqqa to flee their homes.
None of the abovementioned forces appear confident in their ability to take on IS alone in Raqqa and its environs. What does seem clear is that their primary, if not only, concern at this point is to get the edge over each other or, perhaps, even to eliminate all rivals seeking to get into Raqqa first.
Inside Raqqa, conditions are steadily deteriorating in tandem with IS retreats on the ground due to the train of defeats on various fronts. In the course of the battles, communications and supply routes have been severed due to the destruction of roads and bridges while the dairy and crop producing belts around the city have shrunk. There are reports of cracks in the ranks of IS fighters in Raqqa as a consequence of the enormous military strains on the combat fronts in Syria and Iraq, which suggests the possibility of unprecedented rifts and schisms in the organisation.
Still, as its enemies slowly advance and take up positions, IS forces are calmly and unceasingly digging trenches around the city and planting mines along the roads leading into the city. At the same time, as the battle of Raqqa approaches, the organisation is reinforcing its military positions inside Mosul and conducting military movements and redeployments of its forces in Deir Al-Zor in the far east of Syria.
Samer Matar, media activist from Raqqa, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “the city’s quarters, especially in the eastern and northern parts of the city, have been turned into intricate mazes of trenches, earth mounds, tunnels, road mines, wastewater canals and government buildings. This has been interpreted as a military stratagem to compel invading forces to engage in street warfare and to eliminate military aircraft and heavy weapons from the battle. This complex operation is being overseen by a special security team whose tasks can be summed up as mining, maintenance and battle management.”
Raqqa now epitomises the regional and international disputes and conflicts of interests over Syria as a whole. The Russian-American dilemma is at its most acute; neither side takes the tiniest military move before obtaining advanced approval from the other. The Turkish-Kurdish hostility is seething. The Kurds are now working with the regime openly and unabashedly in the hope that this will bolster their power vis-à-vis the Turks. It is as though the eternal enmity between the two sides is about to culminate in the ultimate war between them in northern Syria. The Kurdish militias have courted the Americans, Russians and Iranians in the hope that any one of these countries will include them in the battle for Raqqa so that the Kurds can claim a share of that area located between the regions in northern Syria that the Kurds hope to form into a Kurdish federal region or autonomous territory.
As for Iran and the Syrian regime, they are determined to use all possible means, military and otherwise, to stake a share in the city due to its religious significance to Iranian Shia. Syrian army forces and Iranian militias are fighting the militant opposition factions and the remnants of the “Free Syrian Army” so as to ensure that those groups can claim no part of that region of Syria and so that they cannot emerge as a strong alternative to the regime.
The militant Syrian opposition, which is now the weakest of the military links, is seeking Turkish military support so that it can hold its own against the other rival forces around Raqqa. Having presented themselves as a ready-to-hand army for the “liberation” of Raqqa, they have gradually moved closer and closer into the Turkish embrace. Now they are taking all their major orders from Turkish military commanders.
Everything inside Raqqa and around it is shifting on a daily basis. The map of the distribution of influence and forces on the ground fluctuates, sometimes by the hour, whether we speak of those with the regime, such as Russia, Iran and the Iraqi militias, or those with the opposition, such as Turkey, or those, such as the US, that are watching from the sidelines and threatening, indirectly, that they are the masters of the game in the region.
Turkey and Russia agree on the need to fight IS and are at odds over who inherits its space. Turkey and the Kurds agree on the need to fight IS and are fighting over everything else. The US and Iran agree (theoretically) on the need to fight IS and disagree on everything else. The US and Russia agree that eliminating IS should take priority in Syria but disagree over the fate of Al-Assad.
But it appears that no one, including Russia, can take any serious step without receiving a green light from the White House. In this regard, US President Donald Trump instructed his defense secretary to make the elimination of IS a priority. Last week, an advanced contingent of US soldiers arrived in Syria. They number in the hundreds but, tomorrow, they may number in the thousands. According to military experts, their main purpose may be to provide backing to the forces that will enter Raqqa, which might be a mixture of opposition forces and regime forces.
Israel, for its part, is worried about what will happen after Raqqa. Last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Russia and told the Kremlin that Israel was worried by the prospect that Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, might take Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s place in Syria. Netanyahu threatened that he would prevent that.
This has not prevented the regime and Iranian militias from amassing some 25,000 troops in the vicinity of Raqqa, ostensibly to prepare for the siege. Reportedly, Lebanese Hizbullah forces, Iraqi militia forces and officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are among them. The stated purpose of this troop amassment may be a ruse and the actual plan might be to attack the Idlib region and seize the areas controlled by Syrian opposition forces.
Against the backdrop of all those foreign and local troop amassments and military movements in northern Syria, Al-Assad said in an interview appearing in a Chinese news outlet that, “any forces that enter Syria without our permission or invitation or without consulting with us will be regarded as invading forces.” He apparently forgot that he was the one who had invited the Russian and Iranian forces and the sectarian militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan into Syria to protect him and that he had facilitated the entry of and initially turned a blind eye to radical Islamist organisations affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
IS, for its part, has declared Raqqa a closed military zone. However, for the first time, it has given civilians permission to leave the city, if they wish, and move to other areas under its control. This is further evidence that the organisation is preparing for the major battle inside the city.
The Americans, meanwhile, appear to have made up their minds in favour of the Kurdish militias. This was obvious from the statements by Turkish officials following the meeting of the chiefs of staff of the Russian, US and Turkish armies in Turkey last week.
Still, this stage, IS is no longer concerned about the towns and cities in northern Syria. Its focus is entirely pinned on Raqqa, as it knows that if it loses that city, it will lose its prestige among its followers. Raqqa is the most important city under the organisation’s control. It is hugely symbolic for IS members, not just as their main stronghold in Syria but as the capital of their “caliphate”, and they are clearly determined to defend it. According to eyewitnesses inside the city, the organisation is hunkering down for a protracted battle that could last at least a year.