The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) carried out its largest air strikes against the Islamic State (IS)-held city of Raqqa to date over the weekend.
This comes on the back of the ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) plea for international air strikes to help stave off dual attacks by the SAA and IS on their stronghold of Aleppo, also Syria’s largest city. The US will likely not bomb IS or SAA positions in Aleppo, but they very well could involve themselves in an Iraqi-launched campaign to retake Raqqa. The US is conveniently using the hybrid justification of an anti-terror and humanitarian campaign against IS to increase pressure on the Syrian government and threaten it with an intervention to ‘finish the job’ that was started in Northern Iraq.
Islamic State on the Move
Over the weekend, IS has been on the move, carrying out both defensive and offensive operations. A joint US and Peshmerga attack on the IS-controlled Mosul Dam marked a new stage of US-Kurdish combat interoperability and coordination, highlighting that the two are now behaving as a single, unified military force. IS was also on the defensive in Raqqa, with the SAA bombarding their positions there. On the flip side of the spectrum, IS gained ground in the countryside around FSA-controlled Aleppo and began an offensive there to capitalize off of the SAA’s attempts to liberate the city.
Connecting the Dots
IS’s activity in Iraq and Syria is part of its international strategy and is certainly coordinated. In Iraq, IS understands that the US armor and vehicles it seized from the Iraqi Army in June, which would normally be amazing military assets, are useless in confronting the Kurds. This is because they are easy targets for US airstrikes, thus providing IS with the motivation to redirect them to Syria to reinforce the Raqqa redoubt and also explaining why they haven’t been used against the Kurds so far.
Bringing the focus back to Syria, IS’s objectives are two-fold. First, they want to break the ‘security/safety’ crescent set up between Latakia and Damascus and linking the capital with the coast. This explains the current offensive in and around Aleppo – it provides them with a valuable staging ground for advances further south. If the crescent can be broken, Syria would become even more fractured and an Iraqi-style fragmentation scenario can thus proceed with full steam.
Secondly, should this strategy become stalemated and unsuccessful, IS is fortifying its redoubt in Raqqa. This is the capital of its occupied Syrian territories and was taken from the ‘moderates’ back in February. IS knows that the SAA wants to liberate Raqqa (President Assad said that this is one of the country’s most important goals during his July inauguration speech), so it is therefore intent on strengthening its position there and defending it to the fullest.
If it can retain Raqqa, it can continue its conventional campaign and keep the so-called ‘Islamic State’ alive, even if it is destroyed in Iraq. Under these circumstances, IS has no qualms about using and losing its US-acquired vehicles and armor, as it wants to inflict as heavy casualties as possible on the SAA during their liberation operation here, in what may turn out to be their last outpost and a fight to their last man.
The Race for Raqqa
In the near future, the Syrian Crisis looks to become increasingly centered around Raqqa, IS’s main base. The West can profit from the increased global attention to IS’s heinous activities to argue that Raqqa can or has already become the central terrorist training ground in the Mideast, thereby opening the door for a continuation of the war in Northern Iraq to spill into Syria. Most likely, this will be through the conventional advance of the US and EU armed and equipped Peshmerga, many of whom may have exploited the recent Yazidi exodus to Syria to either infiltrate or openly enter into the Kurdish-controlled areas there.
It must not be excluded that the US may violate UNSC 2161, which condemns terrorism in Iraq and Syria and was reaffirmed by the UNSC this weekend, much in the same fashion as it violated UNSC 1973 to bomb Libya. Ultimately, when one thinks about it, there is nothing besides the US’ own strategic self-restraint that prevents this from happening. The Syrian government does not exercise authority over northeastern Syria, meaning that they cannot repel or defend against any US incursion in that area. In fact, the Kurds there may actually invite the US or the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to intervene, and if an independent Kurdistan is de-facto recognized by the West as it is, this may be as ‘legitimate’ of a pretext as they would need, besides the humanitarian and anti-terrorist grounds they’ve already been building in recent weeks.
Returning back to Raqqa, thus far the SAA has been hesitant to not overextend itself in its nationwide liberation campaign, favoring first to secure its gains around Damascus and the security/safety crescent before freeing the rest of the country. Though this has been the case, the SAA is now being pressured by the West to act prematurely and move on Raqqa before it is ready. This would set it up for a bloody battle against IS that could then leave the SAA vulnerable to other attacks all around the country, possibly reversing its recent gains from the beginning of the year.
The SAA needs to beat the Kurds to Raqqa in order to prevent them from seizing as much territory as possible (per the Iraq scenario) that they can use as future concessions to safeguard their core gains of a transnational independent ‘Kurdistan’. By acting before they are ready, however, the SAA could pit itself against a strongly entrenched foe that is building up its conventional capabilities using the seized US vehicles and armor from Iraq. In this case, if they are forced to act out of necessity, it may be better for the SAA to keep IS on the defensive in Raqqa through airstrikes and then move around and past the city to secure further gains beyond it. This would rebuff the US-backed Kurds and prevent that part of Syria from being dislodged from the unified state.
IS is on the defensive in two of its most important areas, Northern Iraq and Raqqa. The US and Kurdish campaign against it in the former can very well lead to an expansion up to the latter, primarily on anti-terrorist and humanitarian grounds and waged by the pro-US Peshmerga. IS’s attacks around Aleppo are important but are not the most significant part of their strategy. They understand that they cannot overextend themselves especially when under attack in Northern Iraq and Raqqa, but they are hoping for an ideal opportunity to conventionally break through the SAA’s defenses and/or exploit the FSA’s weaknesses to secure a notable and strategic victory.
The crux of the Syrian Crisis is actually becoming centered around Raqqa, since its very occupation by IS provides the US and its Kurdish proxies with the pretext to extend their war in Northern Iraq up to this city, splitting the rest of Syria with it. It can even be that they don’t stop at Raqqa and instead link up with remnants of the FSA, in conjunction with massive US airstrikes, to march on Damascus with the same speed and tenacity as the IS blitzkrieg on Mosul. Thus, from a military-strategic standpoint, the Battle of Raqqa can very well make the resolution of the Syrian Crisis irreversible and decide the course of the war in one way or the other.
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