Syria: Kurdish-led forces on the verge of taking Raqqa, but what comes next?

June 24, 2017
Syrian Democratic Forces fighters near Raqqa.

Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital in Syria, is on the verge of falling.

The rapid advance of the left-wing Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since they entered the city on June 6 contrasts with the slower advance of forces of the Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdistan governments in Mosul, the ISIS capital in Iraq, which the pro-government forces entered in February.

However, the June 18 downing of a Syrian fighter jet by a US war plane, after the latter attacked SDF positions near Raqqa, is just one indication that eliminating ISIS will not end the violent multi-sided war in Syria that spawned it.

Other indications of this include:
• increased attacks by Turkish forces and Syrian militias affiliated to the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) against Afrin in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), the heartland of the revolutionary “democratic self-administration” the SDF is subordinate to; 
• the downing by US forces of two armed drones belonging to the Bashar al-Assad regime forces in the south of Syria, near the Jordanian border; and 
• the continued bombardment by Assad’s air forces, and its ally Russia, of SNC-held areas around the country.

The bewildering complexity of the conflict and its ever-shifting alliances is illustrated by the fact that the Turkish and SNC attacks in Afrin took place in collaboration with regime forces. The regime’s drones were downed while attacking other SNC-affiliated militias.

The US and other Western powers have recognised the SNC as the legitimate government of Syria in opposition to the government of Assad. The West has coordinated air strikes with the SDF and its predecessors since 2014.

No recognition

Yet it refuses to give any recognition to the “democratic self-administration” or the SDF’s political representatives – the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and Syrian Democratic Council (MSD).

The SDF’s military alliance with the West has focused on the fight against ISIS, which the SNC, the regime and the regime’s foreign allies — Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia — are all also fighting. Western (mainly US) military support for the SDF is based on recognising that the SDF is the only force that has a proven capacity to fight ISIS effectively.

The military intervention of the US and its Western allies is confined to aerial warfare, as is Russia’s. The use of US air power supporting the SDF against an enemy other than ISIS is a new development. However, in the past six months the US has used the threat of doing so to deter airborne attacks on the SDF.

Before the rise of ISIS, Western involvement in Syria was giving material and political support to SNC-affiliated militias against the Assad regime. Much of this went through Western allies in the region, in particular Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Russia and Iran are long-term allies of the Assad regime. Therefore, destabilising an ally of these powers was a motivation for the West and its regional allies getting involved in the first place.

The conflict is often seen as coming out of the mass uprising against the regime in 2011, but the activist committees that initially led the spontaneous revolt were mostly opposed to militarising the opposition. Six years later, with half a million people killed and about 13 million people — more than 70% of the population — displaced, their misgivings have been vindicated.


Interference by outside powers turned the militarised conflict into a bloody ongoing war.

Russia and Iran have sought to maintain the rule of the Assad regime over as much of the country as possible. Their interventions have been relatively consistent, despite differences with each other and the regime.

The West’s interventions have been less consistent. Initially, the plan seemed to be either the overthrow of the Assad regime and its replacement with the SNC — a Western-created government-in-exile — or a negotiated solution leading to a government incorporating regime and SNC elements.

However, the rise of anti-Western Islamist elements, both within and splitting away from the SNC-affiliated militias, caused the West to reconsider. After ISIS emerged in early 2014, the ultra-violent fanatics replaced Assad as the West’s principal enemy.

Turkey, on the other hand, directly facilitated the rise of ISIS. It also initially got involved to support the overthrow of Assad. The Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to expand its influence into a post-Assad Syria.

However, Turkey’s priorities changed dramatically after the rise of democratic self-administration, initially in three isolated cantons in Rojava in 2012. This is because that multi-ethnic democratic feminist ecosocialist movement has a close ideological affinity both to the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkish Kurdistan and to the left-wing Turkish opposition.

After various Turkish-armed SNC and non-SNC militias failed to crush the democratic self-administration, Turkey began pouring arms and resources into ISIS.

The September 2014 to March 2015 siege of the Rojava border town of Kobane was a turning point in many ways. It was the first serious check on the rise of ISIS and established the military forces of the democratic self-administration as a significant factor in the Syrian conflict. It was also the start of coordination between Rojava revolutionaries and Western air strikes.

Shifting alliances

Since this point, the US has tried to maintain its alliance with Turkey, the only NATO member in the Middle East, while the battlefield alliance with the SDF developed

For its part, the Erdogan regime, after initially trying to win the US away from supporting the SDF by provoking conflict with Russia, has increasingly abandoned its opposition to Assad. It has made overtures to Russia, while becoming increasingly anti-Western in rhetoric.

Meanwhile Russia, realising that a return to the pre-2011 status quo is impossible and frustrated by the military ineffectiveness of the Assad regime forces, also tried to broaden its alliances. It reciprocated Turkish overtures while giving some political recognition to the democratic self-administration and stationing forces along the border of Afrin canton to deter regime air strikes.

Ironically, the SDF and the political movement it represents have been accused by the Assad regime, the SNC, Russia and the US of being Kurdish separatist. However, the real problem all of these forces have with the SDF is that far from being separatist, it seeks to extend the democratic self-administration model pioneered in Rojava, based on ethnic inclusiveness, women’s liberation and religiously tolerance, throughout Syria.

Russia sees some kind of partition of Syria, giving enclaves in Syria’s north to the MSD and SDF, and other enclaves to Turkish-sponsored and other SNC-affiliated militias, while the regime maintains control of the major population centres and the coast. The US has also hinted that it could accept some kind of partition.

In January, Russia proposed autonomy for Rojava. This was rejected by the MSD.

The rapidity of the SDF’s advance on Raqqa has alarmed the Assad regime and its Russian sponsor, leading to a hardening of rhetoric from Russia. Regime forces began attacking SDF positions around Raqqa on June 17, as well as collaborating with the Turkish and SNC-affiliated attacks on Afrin.

Firat News Agency reported on June 22 that supporters of the democratic self-administration in “Afrin and Shehba believe [there] is an agreement between Turkey, Syria and Russia”. They declared they “won’t allow Russia in their territory if they partake in these attacks by staying silent”.

The US shooting down of the Syrian Air Force jet suggests the battlefield alliance between the SDF and the West is ongoing, but the elimination of ISIS will bring this into question.

The West continues to deny any political recognition to the MSD. Associated Press also reported on June 22 that US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis assured his Turkish counterpart that the US would retrieve all heavy weapons it had supplied to the SDF once Raqqa has fallen.

Like Russia, US officials have previously said that after driving ISIS from Raqqa, the SDF should withdraw to Rojava.

In the long run, a radical ecosocialist Syria is even less appealing to the West than a radical Islamist Syria.

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