US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is in the process of briefing his draft plan for defeating Islamic State, and is allegedly taking a global strategic perspective. This is only appropriate but, before the strategic can be addressed, the tactical must be planned. And now that Mosul is in the process of being returned to Iraqi government control, all eyes are on Raqqa as the next (and possibly last) major urban centre in the Levant fully under control of IS. There are two immediate military-diplomatic challenges involved in the defeat of IS in eastern Syria: who should be the assaulting force and who should be the governing force.
The first of these appears the clearest cut. Washington scrambled for a long time to find a partner whom it could trust on the ground in Syria. It eventually decided to limit its aspirations regarding partnering and concentrated on the Kurdish YPG in the northeast for the group's combat effectiveness, religious moderation, and willingness to focus on IS for the short term. The YPG was embedded within a broader grouping with the appealingly secular and inclusive name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In reality though, the SDF is largely Kurdish: the US Special Operations Commander told a Senate hearing last year the SDF was around 80% Kurdish.
The push into Raqqa has been underway since November last year, but Turkey has never been comfortable with the role of the Kurds in establishing a semi-autonomous zone in northern Syria abutting the Turkish border. This article by one of Obama’s deputy secretaries of state gives a feel for the complex considerations Washington has had (and will have) to consider in balancing Turkish interests and Kurdish realities around Raqqa. There are already reports of Turkish concerns about US reliance on the SDF, but the idea of using Turkish-backed forces appears impractical and appeals to no one other than the Turks.
The overtly Kurdish nature of the SDF is recognised by Washington and there are moves afoot to give it a more Arab face. Obama’s Syria envoy Brett McGurk had previously claimed that the vanguard force to liberate Raqqa would come from Arab forces, reflecting the ethnicity of Raqqa itself. But in the rush to Arabise the Raqqa force, it is likely the US will end up supporting a range of groups who claim a level of support they may not have, or who have ties with regional states who may not share Washington’s long-term aims.This interview with Ahmed Jarba, the very pro-Saudi former Syrian opposition leader is a good example.
But the most difficult aspect of the Raqqa operation is not the seizure of the city but the post-seizure governance. Late last year Washington said it was working with Turkey to develop a plan for Raqqa’s governance. No such plan has been enunciated, and with clashes between pro-Turkish and Kurdish Syrian rebel groups occurring regularly, the ability of Turkey to support groups as far south as Raqqa is open to question. As is Washington’s willingness to provide support for any governing body who takes over Raqqa in defiance of the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies. Assad has stated that he wishes to reassert control over all of Syria, but that Raqqa is not a priority. He would be satisfied if someone else’s blood and treasure was expended in rescuing Raqqa from IS, while he and his allies sought to cut a deal with groups such as the Kurds, who likely understand that their future autonomy - or something that passes for it - is best negotiated with Damascus (with whom it shares long-term interests) rather than with Washington or Ankara (with whom it doesn’t). And, if the SDF gets unrestricted access to heavy weapons courtesy of Washington, it will be in an even stronger bargaining position.
While the complexities of the battle for Raqqa are plain to see, to the southeast lies Deir az-Zour where IS retains a large presence and vies for control with the Syrian military. If the political complexities surrounding the defeat of IS in Raqqa are this great, and it is devoid of Syrian military forces, imagine the difficulties that lie ahead in planning what to do in Deir az-Zour, where any anti-IS military actions supported by Washington will directly assist Assad’s forces.