With all eyes on Raqqa, ISIL’s foes face a falling out

Turkey, Syrian rebels, the Syrian regime and a Kurd-dominated alliance backed by the US are all gunning for Raqqa but their goals – apart from defeating ISIL and driving the extremists from their capital city – do not overlap.

The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Gen Joseph Dunford, left, meets the Turkish military chief Gen Hulusi Akar at Incirlik air base in Adana, Turkey on February 17, 2017. According to reports, the two military leaders discussed operations against ISIL in Syria. Turkish Armed Forces General Staff Press Office / EPA
Powered by automated translation

BEIRUT // As ISIL continues to lose territory in its heartland spanning Iraq and Syria, competing forces with divergent goals and interests now find themselves gunning for the extremists’ capital of Raqqa.

When Turkish forces and their rebel proxies last week entered the town of Al Bab, north-east of Aleppo, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed they would push on towards Raqqa with the ultimate goal of establishing a 4,000-5,000 square kilometre “safe zone” in northern Syria.

Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad, whose forces’ front lines touch those of Turkish-backed fighters near Al Bab, said on Thursday that his military would also move on Raqqa, nearly 200km to the east.

The United States is also considering deploying conventional ground forces in northern Syria after president Donald Trump, who promised during his election campaign to eradicate ISIL “quickly”, ordered the Pentagon to come up with a plan to defeat the extremists.

Meanwhile the Kurdish YPG militia, considered a terrorist group by Turkey, is already within striking distance of Raqqa as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters. Their nearest front line now is just a few kilometres north of the city.

All parties are gunning for Raqqa but their goals – apart from defeating ISIL and driving the extremists from their capital city – do not overlap. The YPG wants to cement the autonomy it has won for Syria’s Kurds. Turkey wants to destroy those aspirations and chase the YPG from its borders. Mr Al Assad’s government wants to recapture “every inch” of Syrian soil as it continues to dream of a total victory in the current civil war.

Rather than a swift defeat of ISIL in Raqqa, the crowded battlefield in northern Syria could instead mean increased conflict between the extremists’ enemies.

To get to Raqqa by the quickest routes, Turkish-backed forces will have to push through areas now controlled by the YPG, a group they have already been fighting since their intervention in Syria last August. Any significant fighting between the YPG and these forces could slow progress toward Raqqa for both parties.

Turkey’s rebel proxy army in the north now shares front lines with Syrian government forces that they would like to fight. Since the early days of the Syria’s war, Ankara stood firmly against the Assad government and encouraged rebel groups aimed at toppling it. But since its intervention last summer, Turkey has intentionally avoided confrontation with the Syrian government as it pursues ISIL and the YPG. In return for Turkey’s help, rebel groups that cut their teeth fighting the government have instead confined their actions to targets chosen by Ankara.

The enmity between these rebels and the Syrian government forces runs deep. More than anything, both sides want to eradicate the other. Now, as they find themselves in close quarters, trying to capture the same objectives, an outbreak of violence is a real possibility.

While Turkey’s proxies and Syrian government forces are many months of fighting away from Raqqa, the YPG-dominated SDF is positioned right outside the city. However, they have not initiated an assault yet as they work to consolidate gains around Raqqa and cut off ISIL escape routes.

Their move on the city is also hobbled by a still unclear US policy on Syria from the month-old Trump administration. Under president Barack Obama, the SDF was the key US ally on the ground against ISIL and was tapped to lead the assault on Raqqa – a situation that deeply upset Ankara and contributed to a serious rift with Washington.

But for the moment at least, things are in flux, with the Trump administration’s plans for Syria murky.

Mr Trump, who was a fierce critic of Mr Obama’s anti-ISIL strategy, has given the Pentagon until the end of this month to come up with a new plan to defeat the extremists. The US president has insisted that he will keep his foreign policy or military moves under wraps, leaving his Syria plans open to speculation.

Ankara has appeared publicly confident that Mr Trump will adopt a more Turkey-friendly policy in Syria by abandoning support for the YPG. On Thursday, Turkish defence minister Fikri Isik claimed the US was no longer insisting on YPG involvement in the Raqqa operation. But there still have not been any signs from Washington that the new administration intends to cut ties with the Kurds.

Without US support, a YPG-led strike on Raqqa becomes more unlikely. Kurdish forces have shown little interest in capturing and holding the Sunni-majority city as it falls outside of their ethnic enclave’s borders. And without American coordination and military assistance, the battle for the city would be even more difficult.

As tens of thousands of troops from different factions push towards Raqqa, who gets there first could well be decided thousands of kilometres away in Washington.