Syria: the battle for Raqqa

UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein declared, on the sixth anniversary of the war in Syria, that it is ‘the worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II’. Despite the government victory in Aleppo in December 2016, which marked a turning point in the war against imperialist-backed and jihadist groups in Syria, it is clear that the country will remain at the epicentre of a regional and global proxy war for a long time to come. The focus has now shifted to the struggle to retake the eastern city of Raqqa from the Islamic State group (IS), with hundreds of US troops openly building up within Syria’s borders, alongside Turkish, Russian, Syrian, and Kurdish forces – all with competing interests and alliances. The threat of wider war in the region has not receded.

Since retaking Aleppo, the Syrian government has continued to make gains against rebel groups throughout the country as they lose their foreign support and morale. The evacuation of the last rebel enclave in the city of Homs was agreed on 15 March. Rebel groups claim that their sponsors in the Gulf states, Turkey and beyond, have cut off contact and support. IS territory in the east of Syria has been significantly reduced. The historic city of Palmyra was retaken from IS by the Syrian government on 2 March. IS continues to besiege Syrian government forces and civilians in the eastern city of Deir Ez Zor. The Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) have taken large swathes of territory in the north-east outside of their autonomous territory of Rojava, with their forces now approaching the IS capital, Raqqa, home to 300,000 people. IS is also under pressure in Iraq, with the Iraqi army gradually making gains in the long battle for Mosul.

The outcome of the battle for Raqqa will be crucial, both in the war against IS, but also for the future of Syria. Which forces play a major role in taking the city, and therefore in holding it, will be key. In August 2016 the Turkish military and its local allies invaded northern Syria in ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’. Their stated objective was to prevent the further strengthening of Kurdish autonomy in the region and to weaken IS. Turkish troops and their allied rebel groups continue to stand off against the Kurdish YPG which have proved to be among the most effective fighters against IS. US special forces have been operating covertly in Syria for years, however, on 9 March, the US increased its deployment of troops in Manbij to 900. The Pentagon is currently proposing to more than double this. This open deployment of US troops has been justified as necessary to prevent escalating clashes between Turkish and the YPG forces.

The US supports the YPG through the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The YPG leads and constitutes the majority of the SDF, alongside Arab and Turkmen groups - some of which were expelled from rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army. The SDF currently has a largely neutral position in relation to the Syrian government. US support for the SDF is putting strain on the longstanding US-Turkey alliance. Turkey has insisted that the US withdraws its support for the YPG. Turkey accuses the YPG of being a terrorist group linked to the PKK which is fighting for Kurdish liberation in south-east Turkey. Russia also supports the YPG, and agreed to begin a substantial training programme of YPG forces in Afrin on 20 March 2017. Russia has proposed a new draft constitution for Syria which would allow greater Kurdish autonomy and rights – opposed by both the Assad government and Turkey (Al Monitor, 27 January 2017). Russia is also developing a relationship with Turkey, and the two countries pushed forward the Astana peace-talks in February. This web of overlapping and competing alliances has resulted in a complicated and dangerous situation on the ground.

The YPG has made clear it has no intention of holding territory beyond the historically Kurdish areas of northern Syria/West Kurdistan, which it already largely controls as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The YPG will not allow itself to become a pawn of US imperialism. YPG General Commander Sipan Hemo explained that the YPG ‘have no goal of remaining in Raqqa … The people of Raqqa will decide their future themselves.’ (Al-Monitor, 8 November 2016). Syrian President Assad has said that: ‘Any military operation in Syria without the approval of the Syrian government is illegal’, and went on to stress that the US has never been serious about fighting IS, and must have other objectives in mind in the battle for Raqqa (Sputnik, 20 March 2017).  

The intention of the US, and Turkey, is to put their stamp on the future divisions of Syria. US Major General Joe Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after meeting with Turkish military leaders in November 2016, announced: ‘The coalition and Turkey will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa’. Dunford suggested that the forces used to occupy and govern Raqqa should be: ‘the moderate Syrian opposition, the vetted Syrian forces and the Free Syrian Army forces’ (6 November 2016). These forces are likely to be imperialist-backed rebel groups which have long been at the centre of NATO plans for regime-change in Syria. US and Turkish forces are likely to support these groups in occupying and governing Raqqa. Syrian government forces have begun to advance to block the route of Turkish troops into Raqqa, and the SDF has handed control of villages around Manbij to the government in order to prevent Turkish assaults on SDF positions. The respective roles played by the Syrian government and US-backed rebel forces in the battle for Raqqa remain to be seen.

US President Donald Trump has proven that he means to continue, and expand, disastrous imperialist wars in the Middle East. On 27 February 2017, he announced an increase of $54bn in annual military spending – more than the entire Russian annual military budget. Trump and his other figures in his administration have begun to talk about war with Iran once again. The US military build up inside Syria can only be bad news for the region, and the world.