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A race towards Al-Raqqah

Saudi Arabia and Turkey have wasted a number of opportunities in Syria. If they had intervened early on to resolve the issue, it would have been less expensive and costly than it is today. As such, they should not waste the opportunity to win the race to Al-Raqqah this time, as the organisation known as Daesh is neither a caliphate nor a state, and is waiting for someone to apply the coup de grâce and put it out of its misery.

There is no doubt that Iran and its allies Russia, the Iraqi militias and the miserable regime in Damascus that gives them legitimacy for their war against the Syrian revolution, are now all gathered to discuss whether it would be in their favour to head towards Al-Raqqah. If they could declare its "liberation" they would get the media benefits, which could be added to those gained from "the liberation of Palmyra". They could decide that their best interest lies in leaving Daesh to play the role it was assigned — to justify the presence of the Russians, Iranian Special Forces and a number of sectarian militias in the country — given the international community's fear of Daesh and the distraction of "Who first, Daesh or Bashar?"

Before Iran and its allies make a final decision, I hope that the Saudis and Turks, along with their allies, will head towards Al-Raqqah and get there first. They are not concerned with providing justifications for one side or another, only with eliminating a terrorist organisation that threatens their security and provides a space to plot and conspire against them, as well as "false hope" to a handful of fools who believe that Daesh's ambitions expand as far and as wide as the sun and the moon. These extremist fools are killing their countrymen and security officers in Al-Dawadmi and Al-Kharj and blowing themselves up in Ankara and Istanbul.

However, the main problem for Saudi Arabia and Turkey lies with their main ally, the United States. The decision is lost, as human rights violations and war crimes no longer concern US President Barack Obama or push him to take a bold decision to get involved, or at least provide international cover for others to intervene. He is too busy protecting the P5+1 agreement that has reinstated Iran within the international community. He is probably writing his departure speech already in which he will say that the world has become a safer place as a result of this agreement; that we must wait for the nice moderate Iranian forces that will emerge as a result; that they will assume positions in the Tehran government; and that Iran will thus be transformed into a peaceful moderate country from a revolution that interferes in the affairs of others and spreads death and destruction in the region along with myths that have no place in international affairs.

Saudi Arabia did not wait for Obama's go-ahead in Yemen, so why is it waiting for him to act in Syria? The Syrians realised their mistake when the Americans posed the question: "Which first, Daesh or the regime?" They answered that they would not fight Daesh without fighting the regime as well. Even I fell into this strategic trap, justifying the rebels' restraint over fighting Daesh before receiving an American promise to support them against the regime.

It would have been better for the rebels, as well as the Saudis and Turks, to drag the Americans into the Syrian quagmire under the pretext of fighting Daesh. Saudi Arabia realised this could be done when it announced its willingness to send ground forces into Syria to fight the extremist group. The US welcomed this, but did not commit to sending ground forces, like Saudi Arabia, or even to provide air protection. Instead, it was content with the agreement to stop combat operations with the Russians, which Riyadh welcomed on the basis that something is better than nothing.

The state of no combat operations was established and balance between the revolution and the regime was regained. The latter took the initiative to head towards Palmyra and was able to regain it from Daesh with suspicious ease.

Perhaps they are trying to decide whether or not it would be wise to head towards Al-Raqqah. The details regarding the decision are between two political, not military, options. This is because the operations in Dara'a against Daesh are ongoing and being led by an alliance of rebels (including Al-Nusra Front, but such complications are inevitable), supported by Jordanian special forces and a command centre in Amman (more details and interventions that are being denied). This demonstrates that Daesh is strong as a terrorist organisation that kills the innocent and weak in Dawadmi, Istanbul and Brussels, but it is not an army or state that can face an organised opposition.

The operations in Dara'a may open the same southern command centre in order to liberate larger areas south of Al-Raqqah, across the Jordanian border with Iraq. However, such a critical move must be made from the north. There is some political crowding in this area, though, since the Syrian opposition refused to cooperate with the Americans in "Daesh first" or "Daesh only" and communicated with Kurdish parties that have suspicious relations with the regime in Damascus and the PKK. The latter is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and carried out bombings recently in Turkey. Washington has supported the Kurds with weapons and encouraged Arab tribes to ally with them with support from regional Arab countries that are friends with Riyadh. They have formed the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are also fighting the Syrians allied with Riyadh, Ankara and Doha; these are yet more conflicting details and interventions, and there are a number of opinions about the reasons for them.

How could Washington do this? And why? It will only complicate things if we find that the Pentagon is supporting forces in the Syrian revolution other than those supported by the US Department of State and intelligence agencies. It would become further complicated if I presented the 50 plans to topple Bashar Al-Assad that Obama rejected, which were revealed by a former US intelligence officer.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are not in a history class to understand what is going on between Washington, Moscow and Cairo, along with Al-Hasakah and Al-Qamishli. What they must understand is how to protect their own national security and how to stop the proposals to divide Syria, not only because it goes against the interests of the Syrian people, but also because it does not serve their interests. In light of the agreement to stop combat operations and the Geneva negotiations, it will not serve their interests unless it supports the Syrian national opposition to liberate territories from Daesh's control, as that will provide political support for the opposition in the negotiations.

More importantly, it will provide the opposition with a large number of weapons that would allow them to eliminate the unrealistic Kurdish separatist project and will prepare them for the big showdown with the regime if the head of the Damascus negotiating team, Bashar Jaafari, insists on distracting the Geneva talks with history, geography and the arts, rather than the departure of President Assad. That eventuality is what the first Syrians to take to the streets in protest five years ago demanded, and what was agreed upon by the first round of negotiations in Geneva.

Translated from Alhayat, 9 April, 2016.

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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