Retaking Raqqa: The great game unfolds
Syrian government forces. Photograph: (AFP)
Raqqa is the 'capital city' of the Islamic State in Syria which is also their heart in West Asia. However, the city is being converted by a number of great powers in the region including Russia and United States who are keen to stamp their authority over the region even as thousands of IS fighters dig their heels to defend their final bastion.
The situation is a quite complicated since the competing actors fighting in Syria are far from agreeing on who will spearhead the final campaign against the IS.
Turkey, Russia, Iran, US, the Kurds, anti-Assad militias are all fighting "wars within the war" over Raqqa as they eye the 'big prize'. Whoever retakes the city secures legitimacy in the international arena as the "destroyer of IS in West Asia". Despite tremendous difficulties that an urban guerrilla warfare presents, everyone seems to be in a rush to take the lead.
In November 2016, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched operation "Wrath of the Euphrates"; they secured several villages north of Raqqa and now their troops are close to the city.
"The number of our forces is now increasing, particularly from among the people of the area, and we have enough strength to liberate Raqqa with support from the coalition forces," Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, recently said in a statement.
The US has backed the SDF with airstrikes and strategic support and has recently deployed 400 additional troops.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are an umbrella organisation in which Arabs and Kurds fight together. The group's backbone is, however, made by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which have been fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria since 2014.
Apart from the evident military challenge, Raqqa's social fabric could be an obstacle for the Kurds. The city mainly consists of a majority Arab population and there is no guarantee that the local population would welcome the Kurdish army. Mosul presented a similar scenario which led the Iraqi Kurdistan army to opt out of entering the city leaving it to the Iraqi army.
Kurds fighting in northern Syria make no bones about their willingness to remain in the areas they have liberated. They aim to form an autonomous Kurdish belt running along northern Syria where intend to implement a form of direct democracy.
Their only obstacle is a 100 km wide stretch of land starting from the city of Jarablus, an area currently controlled by Turkish-backed paramilitary groups. If the Syrian Kurds succeed in leading the attack against Raqqa, they will gain not only gain territorially but also earn political capital internationally.
Their success will ultimately translate into success for the US. It will especially favour President Trump's narrative of being a game-changer, even if he just followed Obama's foreign policy strategy.
It goes without saying that neither Syria's President Bashar al-Assad nor Turkey are willing to accept the Kurds' project.
Turkey considers the YPG as a terrorist organisation and will never allow them to control a continuous belt running along its southern border. The country's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim expressed clear discontent over the support that the US is giving the SDF.
Turkey is currently backing several anti-Assad groups fighting the IS in Syria. These militias are very different in nature and a majority of them are believed to be the Islamist and Salafi-oriented group Ahrar al-Sham, a militia which considers the Kurds as their enemy.
Clashes between Turkey-backed rebel groups and the SDA is already a reality on the ground. According to the Turkish military, 71 Kurdish fighters were killed last week. Turkey has already been 'shut out' from the Mosul offensive and will try its best not to remain isolated in Raqqa also. Keeping Turkey-backed rebels under control will be one of US's most difficult tasks.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops, backed by Russian airstrikes and logistic support, have also advanced towards Raqqa from the south. As president of the country, Assad is opposed to any division of its territory and does not seem to be willing to concede an independent Kurdish region in the north.
Assad has never been able to digest Turkish interference on his soil, especially after Ankara started openly backing anti-Assad paramilitary brigades.
An eventual success of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), the country's regular army, will strengthen both President Assad's position and Russia's reputation as the most effective enemy of the Islamic State. Moscow could also secure, once and for all, its already strong influence in West Asia.
Assad also desires 'personal propaganda' in order to shift international focus over accusations of tens of thousands of random arrests, torture and murder perpetrated in Syria's jails.
Iran too has its eyes on Raqqa. There is no evidence of Iran-backed militias in the Syrian Arab Army advancing towards Raqqa, but such troops have supported President Assad in Aleppo. Tehran will only profit from an eventual SAA successful attack in Raqqa. A strong Shia-aligned Syria is part of Iran's dream of a transnational 'Shia belt' running across West Asia. This will give Iran the opportunity to effectively influence the region's politics appealing to its inhabitants' religious feelings.
There is another puzzle to the Raqqa story. The US secretary of defense James Mattis believes that Iran presents a major threat to peace in the entire West Asia which also means bad news for US presence in the region.
Despite these complexities, Washington and Ankara might converge on Iran. Turkey is opposed to Iran's political hegemony over the region and is likely to subvert any Iranian success.
Planning the attack to retake IS's capital city in Syria seems to be even more difficult than actually fighting it. This is a not just a battle of retaking Raqqa and defeating the Islamic State but a global struggle for influence in West Asia involving regional and international powers.
In this great game, the Syrian populace has been conveniently left out as they suffer silently and find no voice in the country's politics.
(With inputs from Reuters)