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Raqqa and the future of the Syrian conflict

Amidst the public uproar in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, commentators have been quick to hint at a possible shift in Daesh’s strategy. The attacks in Egypt, Beirut and Paris are not merely a testament to Daesh’s global reach, but a signal that it has shifted to a globalist jihadi strategy along the lines of its forerunner Al-Qaeda. While this may be true, talk of Daesh’s capacity for global terror attacks has overshadowed a series of remarkable events currently taking place in north-eastern Syria and across the border in Iraq. Daesh is losing crucial territory to a newly-formed coalition of Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Christian forces. The coalition calls itself the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and it is primarily backed by the United States.

These events, which will be detailed below, give rise to two important questions: (1) has the Daesh expansionist period come to an end? And (2) if yes, could this have serious repercussions on the Syrian conflict as a whole? While recent events clearly show that Daesh is losing territory in Syria, commentators have yet to explore the second question.

It is sometimes assumed that the struggle against Daesh is separate from the struggle between the regime and the mix of rebel/Islamist forces on the eastern and southern fronts. But this is wrong – if Daesh loses its grip on Syria, the remaining players may be forced to confront a previously unknown group called the SDF. And this may turn the tide of the conflict in unexpected directions.

It’s important to track the recent developments along the northern Syrian-Iraqi border in order to understand the current military situation in the east. On 13 November, the Peshmerga captured the Iraqi town of Sinjar in a strategic and symbolic victory over Daesh. The town is an important Daesh cross-border route from Syria into Iraq, as it lies 50 kilometres west of the Syrian border. As it is home to the Yazidi minority that has suffered the worst fate at the hands of the Daesh, the liberation of Sinjar is greatly symbolic for the Peshmerga and morally disheartening for Daesh.

Meanwhile, just on the other side of the Syrian border, the SDF have begun their pressing assault to push Daesh out of their remaining bastions in Hassakah province. The coalition secured its first crucial victory by capturing the town of Al-Hawl, located just inside the Syrian border and facing Sinjar on the Iraqi side. Together with the capture of Sinjar, the fall of Al-Hawl is a major disruption to one of Daesh’s cross-border routes that geographically unifies the caliphate. As we speak, the SDF are pushing south toward Al-Shaddadi, a town at the southern end of Hassakah bordering the Deir ez-Zor province. If Al-Shaddadi falls – and there is little doubt that it will – Daesh will virtually be eliminated from Hassakah, and the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor will come under unprecedented threat.

At this point, it is not clear which route the SDF will pursue after capturing Al-Shaddadi. There are two options: (1) to continue pushing west into the Deir ez-Zor province with the hope of liberating its main city; and (2) to push east toward Raqqa and Aleppo provinces. While these two scenarios are not mutually exclusive, comments made by the SDF leadership suggest that the second route is more likely to be taken. It will include the much-anticipated and, for Daesh, the nightmarish assault on Raqqa city, the capital of the caliphate. Backed by intense aerial bombardment by coalition warplanes, capturing the city is no longer the impossible feat it once was. But it will still be extremely challenging.

The road ahead for the SDF is a long and thorny one. But for a moment let’s assume that it will succeed in taking over Daesh’s Syrian strongholds and forcing the organisation to either withdraw to Iraq or turn into an underground insurgency in Syria. What will the SDF do next, and how might this affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict as a whole?

Comments made by the SDF leadership suggest that the SDF will not cease military activities after having fulfilled its objectives against Daesh in Syria. Hussein Kocher, a leading member of the YPG and prominent commander of the SDF, proclaimed that the battle of Al-Hawl is the prelude to the “liberation of Syria and its people from the radical and suppressive groups.”

Kocher went on to say that “all social components of the region are invited to join the SDF in a bid to liberate the entire Syrian soil” after the liberation of Al-Hassakah from Daesh. Precisely which groups are meant by Kocher’s reference to “radical and suppressive groups” is not entirely clear, though it certainly includes the Assad regime. Kocher clearly stated: “It is time to liberate the entire soil of Syria from the fascist regime as well.” Whether Al-Nusra Front, Ahram Al-Sham, Jaish Al-Islam and other Islamist groups will be the target of the SDF’s campaign is yet to be addressed.

The fact that the SDF has its eye on the regime is significant, and may turn the tide of the conflict in ways that could escalate tensions among regional and international players in the absence of an international agreement to support the SDF. The SDF’s plans to target the regime may be a signal that the US has finally worked out a plausible strategy on Syria, one based on support for a multi-ethnic and seemingly democratic force with the potential of liberating as well as unifying Syria.

But things are never that simple in Syria, and if Kocher’s comments about liberating Syria are seriously entertained, it immediately becomes clear that such a strategy will ultimately fail. By confronting the Assad regime, the SDF will, by extension, confront the Hezbollah-Iran-Russia axis, a scenario that may turn into a direct confrontation between the US and Russia. Neither power wants such a confrontation, and both have thus far exerted their utmost effort to avoid it. Moreover, if “radical and suppressive groups” includes Al-Nusra Front and other Islamist forces, tensions between the US on the one hand, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other, will seriously escalate. But in the long run, it is unlikely that the US would be ready to risk alienating Turkey and Saudi Arabia by directly engaging their proxies militarily.

If Kocher’s plans fail to materialise for the above reasons, that will likely mean that the SDF will cease operations after taking over Raqqa and severely degrading Daesh in Syria. But even this outcome is significant, as it will give the US leverage over Russia during peace negotiations. And this might expedite a comprehensive solution to the conflict.

As complicated as the Syrian conflict may be, the underlying causes that hinder a comprehensive solution are simple, and will continue to threaten efforts toward peace. One fundamental problem is Russia’s refusal to let go of the Assad regime. Another is continuing Saudi and Turkish support to groups that lie on the jihadi spectrum, from Al-Nusra Front to Jaish Al-Islam. The only hope for a successful SDF offensive across different Syrian provinces lies in an international agreement to support it against those groups that are deemed incompatible with the vision of a unified, democratic Syria. That would necessitate Russian, Turkish and Saudi acquiescence, and the abandonment of proxies or their inclusion into the SDF. As things currently stand, this kind of turn of events is still a long shot. And if it fails to transpire, the Syrian drama will continue to unfold, with no end in sight.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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