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Even as the prospect of retaking Raqqa nears, it won’t be easy

February 18, 2016 at 12:47 pm

About a year ago, the prospect of launching a military assault to retake Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State run by Daesh, was somewhat far-fetched. Then, late last year, the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish, Arab and Christian militias, started to gain ground in north-eastern Syria and edged closer to Raqqa. Now, in early 2016, that far-fetched dream seems closer to reality than ever before. This time, though, virtually all local and international players are claiming a piece of the Raqqa pie. The question is: are they serious about it?

Here’s a list of all the actors involved in the drama:

  1. The Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the US, but opposed by Turkey;
  2. Turkey, backed by Saudi Arabia, opposed by the Kurds, the Syrian army and Russia, and sort of supported by the US;
  3. Saudi Arabia, backed by Turkey, opposed by the Syrian army, Russia, and Iran, and sort of supported by the US; and
  4. The Syrian army, supported by Russia and Iran, opposed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and sort of opposed by the US.

As usual, the US is in the middle. I’ll get back to that point later.

Apart from the usual complexity of matters relating to Syria, what raises eyebrows now are the sudden announcements, by both the Syrian army and the Turkish/Saudi alliance, of military preparations to retake the Daesh capital. For one thing, few people would have thought that the Syrian army is ready for such a serious undertaking, even though it has made serious gains in Aleppo and Hama. The tables turn quickly in Syria, though, a fact to which the conflict has borne witness repeatedly. What’s less striking, but still intriguing, is Saudi’s decision to send warplanes to Incirlik Airbase in Turkey, and the announcement by both powers that they might send troops to Raqqa in a bid to crush Daesh.

It’s no coincidence that these announcements were made very recently. At the Munich peace talks on Saturday, world leaders announced a cessation of hostilities in a week’s time. The Iran/Russia/Syria (IRS) axis was never intended to accept this prospect with open arms. A cessation of hostilities would pave the way for two developments that would compromise the long-term strategic ambitions of the axis: an international and integrated effort to combat Daesh, and negotiations on power-sharing in the rest of Syria. The IRS axis has the upper hand in Syria today, and it doesn’t want to lose its momentum.

In reality, Assad´s announcement about marching toward Raqqa masks his true intentions and desires. Retaking Raqqa will come at the expense of maintaining an internationally-reviled radical group close to home. Assad’s tactics for shoring-up local and/or global support are all too familiar. For decades, the Assad family held onto power, and suppressed internal dissent, by claiming to be engaged in a “struggle” against Israel, but without actually doing so militarily. At the start of the Syrian conflict, Assad took advantage of Islamist tendencies within the opposition movement, and quickly defined the conflict in terms of a struggle against radical Islamism. This time, the Syrian president would probably want to keep parts of Syria under Daesh control, especially as it would guarantee international backing for his mini-state in western Syria.

The Syrian army´s reluctant deployment to Raqqa would only be meant to preempt an international force, especially the Turks and Saudis, from carving up a zone of influence in eastern Syria. In other respects, though, the continued existence of Daesh in the east will play into Assad´s overall strategy, as long as the Syrian army can ensure that it won’t pose a threat to its territories in the west. In fact, it´s unlikely that Daesh has plans to expand westward against Assad. Ongoing business ties, as well as a repeated lack of military engagement between the extremist group and regime forces, raise questions about the exact nature of the Assad-Daesh relationship. They´re not friends, but they don’t seem to be enemies either.

It´s also unlikely for Turkey and Saudi Arabia to send ground troops to Raqqa, even though they´re lured by the prospect of playing a leading role in capturing the city. For years now, both states have tried to make strategic gains in Syria, but with only limited success. With their hope of capturing Damascus long-gone, Raqqa offers an opportunity to secure a significant strategic victory, with the potential of turning it into a Saudi/Turkish enclave.

However, for Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the temptation to capture Raqqa is trumped by the extremely complex and bloody situation that any military intervention is sure to face. In addition to dealing with Daesh, Turkey will face stiff Kurdish resistance. More importantly, neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia will risk engaging with Assad´s forces, backed up by Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. A direct confrontation between the two camps has the potential of turning into a bloody regional war, with inevitable catastrophic consequences. Russia has already warned that a Turkish/Saudi invasion will lead to a prolongation of the conflict, meaning that its side will not hesitate to confront the other. On a stronger note, Iran made it clear that it will target Saudi forces in the event of a ground assault. In typical bellicose fashion, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem echoed Iranian sentiments when he warned that any intervention by foreign troops will see them sent home in “wooden boxes”.

So what´s going to happen in Raqqa? For the foreseeable future, probably nothing. Unless things get out of hand, neither the IRS axis camp nor the Turkey/Saudi alliance will send troops toward the Daesh capital. That leaves the door open for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are not too far from Raqqa and have proven to be an effective force against Daesh, although a Raqqa offensive doesn’t seem to be a priority for the SDF either. The Kurds are busy dealing with Turkish attacks in northern Syria, and even though the SDF has stated publicly its intention to retake Raqqa, the reality is that the Kurds are focused narrowly on consolidating their borders, which don’t include the Daesh-held city. For now, their only concern is to defeat Daesh within their own borders, and they probably don’t see the liberation of Raqqa as part of their job.

As for the US, its fundamental problem is that it sort of supports Turkey and Saudi Arabia, sort of supports the Kurds and sort of opposes Assad without wanting to be on bad terms with Russia or Iran. Unfortunately, “sort of” doesn’t create the basis for the design and implementation of a successful, robust campaign devoid of serious complications. At this point, the best bet for the US is to pursue negotiations aggressively, both generally with respect to the Syrian conflict and specifically regarding a multilateral campaign against Daesh. If it pushes for both successfully, it can regain the international prestige that it has lost in the past few years.

On a more positive note, all of this means that Daesh will be defeated in Raqqa sooner or later, although we should remember that any campaign, no matter how aggressive, will not be easy. Daesh is probably dreading a future showdown in Raqqa, but it won’t go down without putting up a serious fight. Large-scale suicide bombings against invaders, door-to-door urban warfare, increased attacks in Europe, as well as the potential use of chemical weapons, will be core elements in the Daesh arsenal. In the midst of it all, unfortunately, the tortured innocents of Raqqa will continue to be punished for being unlucky enough to be there in the middle of it all.

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