October 15, 2017

The impending fall of al-Raqqah - then what?

It is only a matter of time before elements of the U.S.-backed and supported Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) complete the liberation of the city of al-Raqqah from the remaining fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As we have known for sometime, the handwriting is on the wall* for ISIS in its self-declared capital city.

Unfortunately, as with many of these military operations conducted by the Iraqis, the Syrians (with their Russian, Iranian and Hizballah allies) and the SDF, there is great loss of civilian life as ISIS mounts a vigorous defense. ISIS's tactics include the use of large numbers of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIED), booby-traps, minefields, and the indiscriminate use of human shields.

To prevent unnecessary loss of innocent life, the tribal elders of the greater al-Raqqah area have brokered an agreement between the SDF on one side and ISIS on the other. There are conflicting reports of the actual terms of the agreement, but in essence, the deal provides for safe passage from the city for ISIS fighters in return for surrender of the city to the SDF and the safety of the local population. It also allows Syrian members of ISIS to safely surrender to the SDF.

The confusion over the agreement revolves around the safe passage for ISIS fighters. Initially, it was believed that the tribal elders' deal only applied to Syrian members of ISIS, specifically excluding foreign members of the group.

This issue is of concern to coalition member France, which believes that some of the foreign ISIS fighters in the city are responsible for the multiple ISIS attacks on France over the past three years. They are opposed to safe passage of these fighters to an area still under ISIS control. The fighters from al-Raqqah have been relocating to the portions of Dayr al-Zawr governorate southeast of al-Raqqah in the Euphrates Valley.

The U.S.-led coalition, known as the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTFOIR), claims to have had no role in the agreement struck among the tribal leaders, SDF and ISIS. There is precedent for such an agreement - in all cases, ISIS fighters have been afforded safe passage to other ISIS-held areas.

CJTFOIR has in the past opposed such deals, and recently criticized the Syrian regime when it entered into such an agreement that allowed ISIS fighters safe passage to Dayr al-Zawr from positions on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanon border. In this instance, American fighter aircraft kept the ISIS fighters at bay in the desert until an arrangement was reached with the Russians.

It appears that ISIS fighters in al-Raqqah seized the initiative and capitalized on the ambiguity in the wording of the agreement and dispatched some of its foreign fighters towards Dayr al-Zawr using al-Raqqah civilians as human shields. This is happening as the SDF is preparing for what it says will be the final assault on the city. The remaining ISIS pocket is about half a square mile (1.5 square kilometer), or less than 10 percent of the city. It will shortly be under SDF control.

Then the SDF and local government will begin the task of clearing the area of ISIS munitions, booby traps, and isolated holdout fighters, plus dealing with the humanitarian issues that always follow military action.

The battle against ISIS will continue. For some time, we analysts have been predicting the last battle with ISIS as a territorial entity (it will remain an ideological entity for some time to come) will take place somewhere in the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian-Iraqi border, most likely in Syria.

As the time of that final battle draws near, we see the political maneuverings beginning in Syria. However, across the border in Iraq, the political battles are in full swing. Almost immediately after Iraqi forces reduced the ISIS-held Hawayjah pocket southeast of Mosul and southwest of Kirkuk, two events occurred simultaneously - I am not sure if it was also coincidentally or consequently.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum on independence - which to no one's surprise, passed overwhelmingly. As a result, the Iraqi government retaliated by limiting international flights to/from the KRG area, suspending any oil deals worked out by the KRG, and is seeking to re-open an oil pipeline that bypasses the Kurdish area.

Probably more importantly, however, is Baghdad's demand that Kurdish peshmerga forces begin to withdraw from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk has been under Kurdish control since the ISIS sweep across northern Iraq in 2014.

The city has been a source of friction between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds. The Kurds regard Kirkuk as a Kurdish city - about half the residents are in fact Kurds - while the Iraqi government considers it an Iraqi/Arab city. This is complicated by the fact that Turkey has a special interest in protecting the Turkmen minority that represents about 20 percent of the population - in the past it has threatened military intervention to prevent Kurdish control of the city.

The Kurds have an emotional tie to the city. During the Saddam Husayn era, Kirkuk was one of several Kurdish cities singled out for "Arabization" (ta'arib) - a process by which Arabs were forcibly brought to the area to supplant Kurdish residents, who were removed to villages in the desert areas of southern Iraq. As the Kurds see it, the Iraqi government - now backed by Iraqi Shi'a militias - is again forcing them to leave. They feel betrayed after their key role in the liberation of northern Iraq from ISIS occupation.

In Syria as in Iraq, the Kurds played a key role in the defeat of ISIS. Like their brethren to the east, the Syrian Kurds are seeking political recognition for their contributions. Turkey is, of course, pushing both Iraqi and Syrian governments to limit Kurdish self rule and autonomy. The Turks in the past lobbied against America's creation of the SDF and then using this force to liberate al-Raqqah.

The Turks insisted that they lead a Free Syrian Army force to re-take al-Raqqah, claiming that the Kurdish-majority SDF would not be welcomed by the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab city. Since the Turks regard the Syrian Kurdish group that is the key member of the SDF as nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a Turkish Kurd separatist group labeled as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union - they criticized "using one terrorist group to fight another terrorist group."

The Turks were wrong then, and they're wrong now. The SDF was welcomed with open arms by the population of al-Raqqah, as well as the region's tribal leaders. In a letter to the SDF about the recent agreement between the SDF and ISIS, the leaders remarked, “The execution of such an agreement will reinforce the role of the SDF as a trustworthy national force as it has fought honorably and defended our people with integrity.”

That said, Damascus has stated that there will be no autonomy in northern Syria, that the Syrian military will reimpose control over all Syrian territory. The problem with that - this puts the Syrian/Russian/Iranian (and I dare say Turkish) axis on a direct path for a possible confrontation with the U.S.-backed SDF and possibly the anti-ISIS coalition.

- Has the United States made any commitment to the Syrian Kurds after the defeat of ISIS?
- Will the United States mediate on behalf of the Iraqi Kurds over Kirkuk?
- What will be the effect on the relationship between NATO ally Turkey and the United States as Ankara tilts toward its new-found alliance with Tehran and Moscow?

* Forgive the Babylonian metaphor - the handwriting on the wall refers to a mysterious hand that appeared at a feast hosted by Nebuchadnezzars's son Belshazzar in the sixth century BCE. The message: Belshazzar's days are numbered.