Rebels are close to Raqqa – but what happens next?

Now that Kurdish rebels are reportedly 55 kilometres from ISIL's headquarters in Raqqa, what does it mean?

A headline this week noted that Kurdish rebels in Syria were only 55 km from Raqqa, the city on the Euphrates river which is the headquarters of ISIL from where it controls about half of Syria and up to a third of Iraq. Does that mean that the Kurds, who are supported by American bombers and are on truce-like terms with the Syrian regime, are planning a knockout blow against ISIL to mark the first anniversary next week of the declaration of their so-called “caliphate”?

The jihadists are indeed reported to be digging defensive trenches around Raqqa in response to the Kurdish advance. But the logic of this war does not suggest any kind of final assault. Rather, the warring factions are attempting to consolidate their hold on areas of strategic importance and the assets – oil, gas, food, electric power generation – that will support them in a long struggle for survival.

The warring parties are not like Mao’s classic definition of the guerrilla fighter – moving among the people as a fish swims in the sea. They plant their standards and set up their own administrations. The process is led by the regime itself. Recognising it does not have the troops to control the whole country – even with the support of Iran and its Arab militias – it has retrenched to defend the capital, Damascus, the central plain and the coastal strip.

As for the Syrian Kurds, they are establishing control in a northern strip of territory, abutting their ethnic kin in the east, in Iraq, and the north, in Turkey. This territory, which they call Rojava, or western Kurdistan, has a demonstratively progressive administration, with a focus on women’s empowerment. It also controls some of Syria’s largest oil wells and best agricultural land. The fact that the Kurds are determined to carve out their own enclave, however, weakens the opposition as a whole. They cannot ally with Arab opposition groups, which accuse them of ethnic cleansing.

The east is ISIL territory, where the extremists rule by fear – a new video shows their fighters killing enemies by burning, drowning and exploding their bodies – while at the same time co-opting enough of the local tribes to ensure stability. They control some of Syria’s oil wells, and two key sources of electric power – the Euphrates dams and the gasfields of the centre of the country.

Even though ISIL has a backward-looking ideology, it does not want to live by the light of oil lamps, and so has an interest in keeping gas flowing to regime-controlled power stations. There are other areas of cooperation. It is reported ISIL has allowed grain to pass from the Kurdish-held north-east to regime controlled areas at the cost of a 25 per cent levy.

The Cantonisation of Syria is thus proceeding apace. The same is happening in Iraq, though it began much earlier, in 1991 with the imposition by the United States of a no-fly zone over the Kurdish region. Other parts of the Arab world do not offer much hope. Libya has fractured after the toppling by US and European forces of Colonel Qaddafi. Yemen is a war zone.

Two options for Syria are often mentioned. The first is Lebanon, which suffered 15 years of civil war and foreign intervention until 1990. When the war ended after a new power-sharing pact was reached in 1989, the sectarian fiefs carved out by the warring militia were dismantled. The government, always weak, never actually disappeared, and there was broad agreement among the fighting factions that key institutions such as the Central Bank should survive and protect the currency and the financial system.

The other is Somalia. The Somalis are now a virtual nation, comprising a global diaspora and a sliced and diced homeland. The Somalis are kept together by a strong sense of kinship and entrepreneurial flair, but there is no one functioning state of that name.

Syria is still a long way from the Somali catastrophe. The central government, despite having surrendered control of most of its oil resources to defend the heartland, is still paying salaries and provides fuel for the parts of the country under its control.

This remarkable feat is due to support from Iran, which in addition to military aid has shored up the country’s finances, most recently with a $3.6 billion line of credit. This is now presumed to be exhausted, leaving open the question how deeply Iran, suffering itself from punitive sanctions, is prepared to dig into its reserves to support the Assad regime, and on what terms. Given that the Assad regime is hardly credit worthy, the terms of payment should logically be in the form of Iranian control of Syrian assets that have not fallen into the hands of the rebels.

At the moment the Assad regime cannot be written off. The interest of ISIL may be not to march on Damascus but to keep a safe haven in Syria to attract its volunteers from around the world. It needs the revenue of the Syrian oilfields and their products, which supply the mobile raiders of ISIL in Iraq. Given the indecision of the US and its allies on Syria, ISIL might think that the current carve-up of territory may last some time. This view is bolstered by the electoral setback suffered by the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has always insisted that the Assad regime must go at all costs.

A study of Syria’s war economy by David Butter, former editor of Middle East Economic Digest, concludes that the economy will be a critical factor, alongside the military position, in the evolution of the conflict. A dramatic worsening in the economy might be the catalyst for the regime’s military collapse or an externally imposed political transition; further military setbacks might be the trigger for the government’s economic collapse. How this plays out is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that money will be a crucial factor when the endgame comes.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps