Al-Tabqa Dam is where the US blocked Russia and Damascus from advancing towards Raqqah
The battle of Raqqa is maturing as planned under US-EU leadership
Key words: US, U.S., Syria, ISIS, Kurds, Russia, Iran.
Damascus – Elijah J. Magnier: @
The partition of Syria is finally materialising with the United States Special Operation Forces (SOF) landing, in a joint operation with the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), near al Tabqa dam. These forces aimed to control the dam, and in consequence the flow of the Euphrates from Jarablus to the city of Raqqah, and closing the road on the “Islamic State” group (ISIS) from the northwest.
Simultaneously, the US-SDF forces have blocked the advance of the Syrian Army and its allies, supported by the Russian Air Force, stopping these from heading towards the ISIS stronghold in Raqqah and drawing the line of the new “safe zone” that will be occupied by the US forces and will therefore be their future “safe haven”, thus beginning the partition of the north of Syria.
The UK and France are expected to take part of the battle of Raqqah (in the next months) so it becomes a Western victory over ISIS, the group that once occupied territory larger than the UK and is now in continuous retreat on all fronts in Iraq and Syria. Donald Trump is anxiously waiting to declare a global victory over the terrorist group. Trump may be unaware that terrorism cannot be defeated: ISIS is the “unintended consequence of the US invasion of Iraq” and the US invasion of Syria will create a worse blowback than ISIS.
But history repeats itself: America will not finally be able to push away ISIS from Raqqah and deliver the city to the Syrian Army or the authority in Damascus or to Turkey, anxious to take part of the battle of Raqqah (Turkey has been excluded from both Mosul and Raqqah battles).
The US plan would be to deliver the city of Raqqah to local Arab tribes, under Kurdish control. Again, learning from history is an essential element in counter terrorism: the US disregards the fact that occupying cities is the wrong policy and one which leads the US administration to sink into the Middle Eastern quagmire once more. As Wright (2016) rightly acknowledges “America’s own contributions to the dire situation in the Middle East and its involvement since 9/11 has been a long series of failures, responsible for the unfolding catastrophe[i]“.
The Raqqah Arab tribes have resentment against the Kurds, unpopular in the area: Kurdistan Iraq is not the same as “Kurdistan Syria” or “Rojava” as the Kurds like to call it. Moreover, there are Syrian Kurds fighting among ISIS and al-Qaeda (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham), others loyal to Damascus and other tribes who are against the US since its invasion of Iraq. It is not difficult to have dormant allies working for diverse groups. The US is heading towards a wasp’s nest, preparing for the military battle but not to the governance of the area they wish to occupy.
Various sources in Damascus have different opinions about the US presence. First of all, there is no doubt that all belligerents in Syria, though they will for certain not unite among themselves, will have the same objective: hit the US forces, as in Iraq 2003-2011.
“The US is pushing ISIS towards either the Syrian desert, Palmyra or the Iraqi borders before closing it off from al-Bu Kamal, allowing ISIS to spread and continue existing. The US forces did close al-Tabqa road, forcing the exodus of ISIS toward the Syrian Army and Iraq. The victory of the Syrian Army forces in Northeast Aleppo, recovering thousands of square kilometres in ISIS territory pushed the Americans to accelerate the pace and triggered that landing close to Tabqa dam and control the Tabqa airport. Moreover, this military success coincides with wide military attacks by al-Qaeda and its allies (including US vetted groups) on various fronts starting from Damascus to north Hama and Daraa. These attacks were supported by the ‘Euphrates shield’, Turkey’s proxies, the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (US vetted) and other groups financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, said a decision maker source in Damascus.
The attack failed to meet its objectives: Damascus pushed its forces beyond what was occupied by al-Qaeda and its allies, advancing into territory in al-Ghaboon never recovered before. And in Hama the counter attack is successfully recovering lost land and taking the initiative, a demonstration of the strength and capability of reorganisation of the Syrian Army and its allies after absorbing the first wave of the attack.
According to sources, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey fear the link between Tehran (long borders with Iraq), Baghdad (borders with Syria), Damascus and Beirut, once defined by the Jordanian Monarch as a “Shia crescent”. This could be one reason among many as to why the US decided to cut the road on Russia and its allies and prevent it from lifting the siege of Deir-ezzour. Had the Syrian Army advanced beyond al-Tabqa dam, ISIS would have gathered strength around Raqqah to fight back, and Russia and its allies would have sent reinforcements to Deir-ezzour, preventing the expansion of US plans in Syria. Damascus agreed to change the constitution and offer a federation in the northeast of Syria but not for Washington to use the Kurds as an excuse for occupying it.
Obviously all forces are happy to hit ISIS because it is the weakest force on the ground. The group has lost all regional support, and is defending the cities it is occupying. ISIS is still capable of military initiatives and sporadic attacks here and there, but these insurgency attacks have no longer any strategic objective.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “the battle of Raqqah would begin in the coming days”, without specifying what would be the next step after ISIS and without stating which force will run the city.
The battle around Raqqah began several months ago but the battle of the city of Raqqah itself has not yet fully matured. Europe has yet to enter it with the US. But the dispute remains: Do Kurdish forces enter the Arab city, clean it, lose many militants in the process, but without ruling it? Do the Arabs tribes of the region accept the Western presence (French/American/British) on their soil and the conviviality with the Kurds?
The answers to these questions are not available today because any reaction against the United States in a large, programmed and continuous manner requires time to prepare, organise and finance. And the US has never landed in Middle Eastern cities – from Beirut to Iraq – without losses. Its administration cannot afford such losses and won’t be happy to see the return of soldiers in black bags for no strategic purpose.
There is, however, another opinion: “let the US come to Syria and eliminate terrorism if that is the intention. When the US forces landed in Iraq in 2003, they triggered what is known today as ISIS. To fight the insurgency, the US successfully created the “Awakening force” made of Sunni tribes to stand against the group. The departure of the US forces allowed the group to expand to Syria and other countries. If the US can stop the slaughtering and the sectarianism, then its presence is important”.
This approach is controversial and lacks factual support: the intention of the US in Syria is still largely undeclared and unknown. Are the US forces going to push ISIS towards the cities controlled by the Syrian Army and towards Iraq so they can watch the struggle from afar? The aim of the US, after all, is not to take the pressure off Russia and Iran. This leads to the conclusion of an intended partition of Syria between Turkey and the US influence zones in the north, and then to watch the ongoing war against al-Qaeda and what is left of ISIS in other parts of the country until a political solution mature.
Al-Qaeda is expected to fail to reconsolidate its grassroots, especially since its military offensive in recent days has failed. The multi-front clash left many killed on the battlefield and will certainly have a negative blowback against the group in the area under its control, mainly the city of Idlib and rural Aleppo and Latakia.
Russia is more determined than ever to avoid sinking in the Syrian mud and to reach the end of hostilities. Would it be a possibility for Russia to live with the US on the same territory (Bilad al-Sham) similar to the situation in Berlin after the World Word II or will Moscow support the insurgency?
Too early today to answer this question, but the Syrian saga is far from over. It is continuously shape shifting and reshuffling its allies.
[i] Wright Lawrence, The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.