As the Syrian Army and its allies continue their advances against terrorists, foreign powers supporting armed groups in Syria are seemingly less interested in the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad. The situation in Raqqa is now in the spotlight of all parties involved in the conflict.
It cannot be ruled out that after the liberation of the Daesh capital the conflict may enter a new stage where interests of Turkey, Iran, the United States, Jordan, Damascus and other parties will collide, political commentator Ilya Plekhanov wrote in an op-ed for RIA Novosti.
In 2011, Assad visited Raqqa. It was the first visit of a Syrian leader to the city since 1947. Damascus believed that Raqqa residents were loyal to the government and not exposed to radicalism.
However, in March 2013, al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham managed to seize the city after just three days of fighting against government forces.
At the time, Raqqa was controlled by non-local radicals, but soon after al-Nusra Front decided to involve local jihadists and their relatives who had contacts with Daesh in Iraq.
In 2013, hostilities broke out between al-Nusra Front and Daesh, and several months later Islamists in Raqqa pledged allegiance to Daesh. In 2014, full control over the city was taken by Daesh militants and became the de facto capital of their “caliphate.”
US, Turkey at Odds Over Kurds
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) numbering some 50,000 fighters was formed in October 2015. The SDF is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance, bringing together Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen fighters, among others.
The SDF is mostly composed of and militarily led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a mostly Kurdish militia.
The SDF was established to improve the Pentagon’s positions in the region. Previously, the US supported the YPG, which angered Turkey. Ankara considers the YPG as an instrument in the hands of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to boost Kurdish influence in the Arab world. In turn, the Syrian opposition accused the YPG of intending to cooperate with Damascus. As a result, the establishment of the multiethnic SDF became a compromising solution.
US General John Allen said that cooperation between the US and Kurds was the result of an accidental coincidence of factors. The alliance formed after the battle of Kobani and the liberation of Hasakah province. The Pentagon was impressed by the Kurds’ combat capabilities. Moreover, the US military needed an ally in Syria, after several failed attempts to form a capable opposition military force.
In October 2016, concerned by the Kurds’ military advances and their alleged contacts with the Assad government, Turkey proposed to establish a new force to liberate Raqqa, which would comprise of some 8,000 pro-Turkish Arab fighters and 4,000-5,000 Turkish personnel. The US insisted that some 20,000-22,000 were needed to liberate Raqqa and rejected the proposal.
In spring 2017, Turkey launched an offensive against Kurds in Syria. At the same time, the Pentagon alongside Kurdish forces began patrolling along the Syrian-Turkish border and increased their presence in the region. As a result, Washington and Turkey have been at odds over the Kurdish issue.
Nevertheless, the role of the SDF in the Syrian conflict has recently been on the rise. Syrian opposition forces are also considering joining the group because siding with a US ally would make them less defenseless against pro-Damascus forces.
On the one hand, consolidation of forces around the SDF will facilitate the liberation of Raqqa and a further offensive on Deir ez-Zor. The opposition said that it would not mind fighting jointly with Kurds under the control of the Pentagon.
However, Kurds have concerns over the future developments in Raqqa, according to Plekhanov. First, Kurds fear that Ankara could establish the rule of pro-Turkish groups in the region. Moreover, Kurds do not want Damascus to restore control over Raqqa and would fight against pro-government forces in the region. Finally, the liberation of Raqqa would symbolize a Kurdish contribution in the defeat of Daesh, boost their relations with the US and improve their international status.
As for Ankara, Turkish forces are carrying out strikes against Kurds near the border, in a bid to force the SDF to withdraw part of its forces from Raqqa. Turkey would even accept Damascus’s control over Afrin to reduce Kurdish influence in the region.
Some Kurdish commander said that Russia was trying to influence Kurds so that they approve Damascus’s control over Afrin in the de facto autonomous Rojava region in northern Syria.
Moreover, Jordan is concerned that the defeat of Daesh in Raqqa and military advances against Daesh will force Islamists to regroup near the Syrian-Jordanian border in a threat to its national security.
Pro-Iranian Shia groups are fighting Daesh in Iraq to establish a direct corridor to the Syrian Army and pro-Iranian forces in Syria. Tehran does not want either pro-Turkish or pro-US forces to increase their presence in the region.
Another question is what the population of Raqqa will do after the city is liberated from Daesh. The city’s four most prominent tribes do not like the Kurds, the Americans or the pro-Iranian Shia groups.