On June 6, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the launch of the battle to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). The battle for Raqqa, which is the main stronghold of ISIS in Syria, was announced concurrently with the SDF capturing wide areas in Raqqa countryside in preparation to laying siege to the city.
From a military perspective, the international coalition represented in the United States played a central role in expulsing ISIS from its stronghold areas. The warplanes paved the way for the advance of the attacking militias, whose task was at times confined to sweeping and demining neighborhoods and villages. Earlier, the United States announced that it would support the Kurdish factions in northern Syria with heavy weapons. There have been notable successes. The SDF has advanced its frontlines against ISIS as it pushes forward over semi-empty areas and captures villages and small towns. There have also been agreements that provide for ISIS forces to withdraw from the big cities and towns, the most recent of which was from Taqba, a city fifty kilometers (thirty miles) west of Raqqa.
However, this advance produced the largest exodus in northern Syria since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) remain the dominant force in the SDF, even though a number of Arab fighters have joined the SDF, including Arab Christians, minorities, and Bedouin tribesmen. The SDF continues to lack Arab support in the upcoming battle, in particular from settled tribes and the Arab factions in the region. The YPG has tried to exclude some of the more powerful Arab groups from the battle for Raqqa. The YPG dream of both assuming political control and striking the required balance between different factions in Raqqa seems unattainable. The local Arab militia known as Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa which is considered the only brigade of the Free Army that includes Arab fighters in the region, was excluded recently from participating in the battle for the city for fear of increasing the number of its recruits entering Raqqa. According to activists, these fighters are a threat to the YPG’s existence in Raqqa. A human rights monitoring group, Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS), documented the killing of at least 652 civilians as a result of the international coalition’s bombing in May of this year.
Nonetheless, the outcome of the battle for Raqqa seems to be settled in favor of the SDF, despite the destruction, devastation, and rise in civilian casualties that the city will sustain. The question is, given the lack of Arab support for the SDF military operation, and the public perception of the campaign with the high number of civilian casualties, what will ISIS do after the battle for Raqqa? Where will ISIS head to when it withdraws from Raqqa?
In Syria, ISIS has always withdrawn the bulk of its forces rather than meet the enemy head on, instead leaving a smaller force and relying on mines and street fighting to cause maximum damage to the enemy. The task of some of its recruits is restricted to stationing in the towns and villages in order to delay the advance SDF forces, such as when ISIS forces withdrew from al-Mansoura Town (20 km west of Raqqa) towards the desert. It is believed that ISIS chose the northern Palmyrene mountain range as a new base to transfer its first and second line commanders, who are considered its fighting, political, and security elite, and to transfer its military and financial stocks to that region located in the desert, east of Raqqa. This region extends to the villages of the eastern countryside of Salmiya, at the end of Bala’as mountain range to the west, and is connected in the south to the northern Palmyrene mountain range that reaches al-Qalamoun mountains.
This region is a central point between three countries: Jordan, Iraq and Syria, through which ISIS can reach most of the Syrian regions; from the predominantly Druze Sweida, adjacent to Israel in the far south, to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the east. From this mountain range, ISIS can easily cross the international road between Homs and Damascus and can have easy access to the countryside of Homs and Hama, which include Alawis and Christian villages, to the countryside of the Ismaili-majority Salamiyah and Idlib, a stronghold of the Nusra Front in al-Tamanah town, and can enter Damascus countryside from Dumair. ISIS can also attack oil and gas wells, such as the al-Sha’ir field in Palmyra and eastern Homs countryside. The rugged mountainous region that is of desert nature and void of villages and population groups portends a long-standing guerrilla war, making the restoration of stability very difficult.
In addition to withdrawing to this region, it is necessary to consider the potential infiltration of ISIS recruits, especially its commanders, to other regions in and abroad Syria to establish new cells, as has happened in other countries. In Libya, for instance, the US operation Odyssey Lightning supported local forces to drive ISIS out of the Libyan city Sirte. Although it succeeded in doing that, many of ISIS’ fighters, including its commanders, simply melted away into the desert. The current approach in Syria will give ISIS a similar opportunity, which will make defeating ISIS in Raqqa, partial at best.
Feras Hanoush is an activist from Raqqa, a former doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières in Syria, and a member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.