The attack on Raqqa, ISIL self-claimed capital, has already started without much of a fanfare. Four major forces are participating: The US led coalition through airpower, Assad’s forces supported by the IRGC and the Shia militias, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with its PKK affiliated YPG and Russia’s military backing. Turkey is not included, though it is not obstructing it.
In fact, Ankara is cooperative in some instances after its arrangement with Moscow, and the assurances it received that there will be no independent Kurdish entity across its borders and Syrian territories will not be used to attack Turkish targets. US promised Ankara also that the YPG will “eventually” pull out to east Euphrates after Raqqa. Military commanders in the US, Russia and Turkey met recently in Ankara to work out the details of the attack on Raqqa and the division of labor in the battle field.
The US sent additional marines to north east Syria and the US led coalition started an intensive air bombing targeting ISIL’s position north of the town March 7, that is one day after SDF cut the road connecting Dair Al Zour and Raqqa. SDF’s control of that road completes the circle around Raqqa from north, west and east. In the south, there is the Euphrates river, and only boats can connect Raqqa to the southern bank. Coalition air force destroyed the two bridges connecting Raqqa to the region south of the river.
As Assad now seems to have got what he always wanted, namely US recognition of his role, he uses the moment to punish Syria’s civilians in areas that were among the first to protest his cruel and corrupt dictatorship. Syrian and Russian planes bombed Dara all day long March 6 inflicting huge damage on densely populated parts of the city. Obviously, no word from Washington condemning the continuous killing of civilians by air raids. Similar attacks simultaneously took place in Hama, Idlib, Around Aleppo, Homs and around the capital Damascus.
Turkey seems to have reluctantly come to terms with the new reality of US-Russia-Assad-PKK-Iran cooperation in the north of Syria. Ankara’s Prime Minister was quoted as saying that his country does not oppose that Assad’s army control Minbij. In any case, Ankara could not do otherwise. The US is now openly working with Assad, his allies, the YPG and Russia. Even in the battle of Palmyra, US air force coordinated every move with Assad’s ground forces.
Meanwhile, the armed opposition is fighting each other in Idlib. The two poles of the fight is Nusra and its allies in one side, and Ahrar Al Sham and its allies in the other side. Nusra attacked several Ahrar’s sites in the last few weeks, and Ahrar’s fighters are trying to capture back what the lost.
Nusra accuses Ahrar of kidnapping some of Al Qaeda Sheikhs and commanders. Ahrar denies the accusation. Moreover, Nusra believes that Ahrar and its allies provide the US coalition with information about where its leaders are and the exact positions of its fighters. Syrian civilians demonstrated in several towns of western Aleppo region in protest of the opposition intra-fight. Civilians blocked the roads to stop the progress of forces rushing to where clashes between the two groups were raging.
The issue under consideration now in the contacts between Russia, the US and Assad is the Safe Zone project which is actually proposed by the Pentagon. The crux of the proposal is to establish a no-shooting area within borders controlled already by Assad and the Russians. Access to these areas will strictly bar any armed individuals or groups.
This was coupled with ISIL swift withdrawal from Al Khafsa water treatment station in the eastern country side of Aleppo. Assad forces, supported by Hezbollah’s elite forces and Russia’s air force were approaching the site of the station March 7, when the news of ISIL surprising withdrawal reached the first lines of Assad forces and their allies. It is not clear yet why ISIL took that decision. The most benign explanation would be its willingness to focus on Raqqa as its last stand. Another is that the organization wanted to remain in the good side of Aleppo civilians who depend on the station for their supply of potable water.
In either case, the moves of ISIL forces in the north east of Aleppo testify to a quasi-collapse within the organization. And the advance of Assad forces is continuing in an impressive pace. The map of the territories controlled by Assad and the pro-Iran forces allied with shows two obvious facts: Assad and allies are now bordering the territories controlled by the SDF and the YPG – The countdown for attacking Raqqa is getting to its final phase.
But how will Raqqa be attacked? And by whom?
Events on the ground indicate that there is already a high degree of coordination between the US and Russia in that matter. On behalf of Russia, Assad and the pro-Iran militias will have a share in attacking Raqqa, and on behalf of the US, the SDF and the YPG will have a share. There will be no uncoordinated race to Raqqa as was the case just three months ago.
Therefore, no one will be able to claim victory in Raqqa alone. The story of the capital of the Caliph was rich with symbolism from day one, when ISIL picked this forgotten town in the middle of nowhere in the Syrian desert as its capital. The choice was based on an old religious text. Now, this town which entered the pages of history from a bloody door will stand as a symbol of US cooperation with two dictators and a terrorist regime.
The most significant side of this cooperation will be presented by each side according to its own agenda. It is cooperation to defeat terrorism in the US lexicon. It is a prove of Russia’s relevance in Moscow’s dictionary. It is a victory for the model of the Islamic revolution in Iran’s language. And it is a vindication of his strategy for Assad.
But how will it go for the Syrian people? Well, who cares.
9 March, 2017