The Side Conflict to the Liberation of Raqqa

Statements from American officials about the possibility of an increase in US military presence in Syria escalated with talks of increasing special operations forces, fighter jets, and supplies for local combat forces. This comes as battles surrounding the city of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh), draw closer. Reports indicate that 400 US Marines arrived in Syria early last week to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the battle to retake Raqqa, ISIS’s capital in Syria, and another 1,000 troops might yet be sent.

However, Americans fear of being getting stuck in a quagmire suggests that it would be wiser for them to increase the number of trainers and military experts to support local combat forces—such as those of the SDF—and Arab factions in the area, rather than send in the Marines. Through its repeated retreats from the outskirts of Raqqa and Eastern Aleppo, ISIS is trying to drag the battle into Raqqa and turn it into a street war, which it tactically excels at and would be costly for the Americans. In this way, ISIS is forcing the US’s hand into bombing dense residential neighborhoods. Moreover, the group has barred civilians from leaving the city for nearly the past nine months to use them has human shields in the event that the city is attacked. ISIS has also dug booby-trapped tunnels and filled cement pipes with crude oil that it can burn to make smoke clouds to obstruct international coalition aircraft, which are the main weapon in the ongoing battles against the group.

Meanwhile, on February 27, US President Donald Trump received a plan prepared by the Pentagon to attack the Raqqa stronghold.

The conflict between various international and local forces in the region make the presence of US forces on the ground more likely. America has altered its original plan to avoid any contact with any forces supported by the Turkish Euphrates Shield operation. Turkey considers both ISIS and the Kurdish forces fighting against it as common enemies that must be destroyed. To keep the focus on fighting ISIS and retain the support of the Kurdish-dominated SDF, the US now finds itself coordinating its attacks with Russian and Syrian government forces in the city of Manbij in the outskirts of Eastern Aleppo to avoid coming into conflict with them.

Manbij, located on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo, currently poses a threat that may impede the battle against ISIS. There is now the potential for side battles to break out between attacking forces of the the SDF, mainly comprised of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has coordinated and at times received support from Syrian regime and Russian forces, and the Turkey-backed Euphrates Shield forces. This latter group sees Kurdish forces as an existential enemy. This battle may only be prolonged by the intervention of American forces in the imbroglio, turning them from military forces that intervened for a combat mission to conflict-resolution forces, brokering peace between warring factions.

Now the Trump administration faces two difficult options: The first involves the loss of support from, and perhaps even defeat of, Kurdish forces and SDF militias, which comprise an essential pillar in the ongoing battle in Raqqa and its outskirts. The second involves the loss of Turkey as an ally and regional partner that holds major sway in the Middle East to curtail Iranian regional influence and attend to the grievances of Arab Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. To be sure, defeating ISIS will not be an absolute victory for President Trump if Turkey, a primary American ally, were to be sidelined and no longer support US interests. This would unleash Iran as an even greater regional influence, particularly in light of the agreements it has made with Kurdish forces—via the Assad regime – in northern Syria as well as its control over Shiite-majority Iraqi provinces. 

While Trump has ordered the modification of restrictions on military rules of engagement imposed by the Obama administration, which include limits on avoiding civilian deaths, it is not known whether or not the new military proposal will lift these restrictions or not. Furthermore, the danger that the Tabqa Dam will collapse, be bombed by ISIS, or its pump and gate technicians will flee remains one of the main threats to Raqqa and the surrounding population. The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported last month that the water level of the Euphrates has risen by ten meters since last January and warns that any additional increase in the water level or damage to the dam may lead to widespread flooding in all parts of Raqqa, even reaching as far as Deir Ezzor. The amount of water stored in Tabqa dam exceeds 14 billion square meters. Whereas the water stored by the Baath Dam, located 27 kilometers north along the Euphrates, is over 90 billion square meters.

Until now, the US has focused on fighting ISIS as if it were separate from the rest of the war in Syria. This has put the US in its current predicament. It does not appear that the US is ready to change its course of action, which does not bode well for its ability to end its war against ISIS nor its ability to bring stability back to the region. This could lead to the rise of new radical groups as a response to those who feel wronged by the continuous war with the regime and its militias.

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.

Image: Photo: A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter watches a convoy of his forces advancing in the north of Raqqa city, Syria February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said