Raqqa scenarios taking shape before major offensive

As the spring equinox starts with March 21, which is celebrated as the ancient new year under the name of Nevruz or Newroz in many eastern cultures, preparations are about to be completed for a major offensive on the Syrian city of Raqqa, which has been under occupation by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) since January 2014. According to diplomatic sources, if the operation does not start by early May, it might get more difficult because of the summer heat, especially for the ground troops.

But besides the calendar pressure, it also not clear who will carry out the Raqqa operation and how. Now there are the U.S. Central Command-backed (CENTCOM) Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) positioned to the north of Raqqa. Raqqa and its south are occupied by ISIL. The Russians made a surprise move to head towards Raqqa in support of Syrian regime forces and take over positions in and around the town of Manbij, west of Raqqa, from the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) on March 3. That stopped the march of Turkey-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels on Manbij amid Turkish objections due to the YPG presence there.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan suggests that the United States should abandon the YPG as a partner, so that the Turkish army and the Arab rebels will join forces with the U.S. and retake Raqqa from ISIL.

That scenario has lost ground after a meeting called by Turkey in Antalya on March 7-8 with the participation of top generals from Turkey, the U.S. and Russia. The Russian military is providing assistance to the Turkish military, according to a de-conflict protocol, in order to avoid producing any unintended clashes between them and the Syrian regime forces, provided that the Turks move only on ISIL, not the YPG. The YPG is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting against Turkey for more than three decades. 

After the Antalya meeting, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which owes its endurance to Russia, filed an official complaint to the United Nations against Turkey, asking it to leave its territory. Yesterday, on March 20, Reuters reported that Russian might give military training to YPG militia in and around Afrin, west of Syria very close to the Turkish border.

CENTCOM has deployed heavy weaponry to the region, which is an indication that it will not require a Turkish deployment for the Raqqa operation, while the U.S. State Department has also said it wants to carry on with the YPG, despite objections from NATO ally Turkey. Meanwhile, we are all still waiting for a call from U.S.
 
President Donald Trump about the operation. The Americans think the Turkish proposal would require brand new planning, which would mean a greater budget, time and energy and dependence on two foreign armies (Turkey and U.S.), rather than local forces, which could lead to “a new wave of extremism.”

However, the Turkish government is still waiting for the official announcement of the U.S. administration, while also being in the midst of the campaign for the April 16 referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system.

If the Turkish proposal – either in modified form or as it currently stands – is rejected by Trump, it will leave two major possible scenarios regarding taking Raqqa back from ISIL:

1- The Russians and the Syrian regime leaving the Raqqa operation to the U.S.-led coalition and focusing on Deyr az-Zor. That would mean Russian-backed regime forces marching southeast, along the west bank of the Euphrates River, and not bothering for now with the east bank. The U.S. forces would continue marching on Raqqa to take it from the hands of ISIL together with the SDF, (which has the YPG as its backbone), despite Turkey’s objections. CENTCOM has been working with the YPG ever since they did not allow the Syrian border town of Kobane to fall into the hands of ISIL in the fall of 2014, and later on during the capture of Haseke and Manbij. On paper, this operation could be open to a Turkish contribution, but Ankara is not likely to accept this because of the YPG presence. But YPG forces are not likely to be allowed to settle in Raqqa because of the possible reaction from the Arab population there and the Arab elements of the SDF. 

2- Alternatively, the Russia-backed Syrian regime forces may decide to cross the Euprahtes and march on Raqqa. In that case, one of two things might happen. ISIL could choose not to get involved in an intense fight against the Syrian forces (which have heavy weapons and air support), and retreat (as they did in Jarablus during Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation) to Palmyra, Deyr az-Zor, or further east to Iraqi territories. Or ISIL might choose to dig in and fight for Raqqa as its political headquarters. The U.S. is not likely to get involved in a confrontation with the Russia-backed Syria army, and in need of more ground forces the Syrian regime could cut a deal with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the YPG. The YPG might then continue the fight against ISIL, not under U.S. protection but under Russian-Syrian protection. The Turkish army is not likely to be either invited or willing to take part in such an operation. 

In both of these scenarios, the big missing factor is Iran, which actually has the biggest fighting force in both Syria and Iraq, second to the armies of both regimes. With the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, plus a number of Iran-leaning Shiite militia and the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran exercises an important presence. Tehran and Moscow have good relations as the two major countries supporting the al-Assad regime, but that does not mean their interests are identical.

After Hezbollah and pro-Iran militia were recently seen in the vicinity of the Golan Heights, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu immediately flew to Moscow on March 9 to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin and ask him to keep Iran away from Israel’s borders. However, that did not solve any problems, and when an Israeli jet bombed pro-Iran forces near Palmyra on March 19, Russia protested and asked Israel not to repeat the incident.

Clearly, the picture is getting increasingly complicated as time passes, while the calendar for the Raqqa offensive against ISIL also gets increasingly pressing.

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