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    June 11, 2016

    The Battle for Raqqa: Berlin 1945 or Seville 1936?

    June 11, 2016 -
    Svyatoslav Knyazev, PolitRussia - 
    Translated by J. Arnoldski

    Around May 20th, the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces”, the main component of which are Kurdish militias, undertook a rather serious attempt to advance on the Syrian capital of ISIS, Raqqa. They undertook this action not by themselves but apparently on the initiative of the United States. Before the beginning of the offensive, the four-star general and head of the Central Command of the US Armed Forces (CENTCOM), Joseph Leonard Votel, visited Northern Syria. 

    Syria and Russia vs. the Kurds and the US

    It is difficult to believe, and it indeed smacks of surrealism, that the Syrian Democratic Forces include Kurdish brigades, i.e., the natural enemies of the US’ NATO ally, Turkey, and the sworn allies of the US’ natural enemy, Assad. Nevertheless, they are supported by approximately 250 American “military advisors/marines” (apparently these are US special operation forces), around 20 American combat aircraft, and up to a thousand PMSC mercenaries from NATO countries.

    According to Washington’s official position, badge-wearing Americans are not participating in combat operations. But according to media reports, they are in fact personally fighting in the most difficult zones and are directing the targeting of US aircraft. The Yankee’s activity is confirmed by the fact that they have successfully spread scandalous photo and video materials in which they can be seen wearing the stripes of the Kurdish People’s Self-Defense Forces who make up the backbone of the SDF. 

    Such open support on the part of the Americans for Syrian Kurds has caused a painful reaction on the part of Ankara, which considers the Kurdish People’s Self-Defense Forces to be a terrorist organization. The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has accused the US of double standards and advised them to wear the badges of the Islamic State. He said:

    “It is unacceptable that our allies have worn the chevrons of the Kurdish People’s Self-Defense Forces. We have responded to this by declaring that it is unacceptable. These are double standards and manifestations of duplicity. We advise them to wear the chevrons of the ‘Islamic State’, ‘Jebat al-Nusra’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ when traveling to other regions of Syria. And when they go to Africa, let them wear the stripes of Boko Haram.” 

    US officials apologized without any special servility, but have promised to ban “fraternal badge-wearing” with Kurds. 

    However, the fact remains that the Americans are formally coordinating Kurdish operations against the Islamic State, which has received practically overt support from the US-allied Persian Gulf monarchies and allied Turkey, and which, according to number of analysts, itself emerged and expanded not without Washington's help. 

    In this situation, Syrian-Russian-Iranian forces are acting at the same time as allies and rivals of the Kurdish-American alliance, and began to advance towards Raqqa a few days after the SDF did. 

    Experts have begun to predict who will reach the ISIS capital first, who will hoist his flag of victory first, and whether or not there will be a direct confrontation between the American special forces accompanying the Kurds and the legal Syrian government aided by Russian troops. The Financial Times anxiously suggested that “the battle for Raqqa risks pitting Russian and US forces against each other” and pondered whether it would be possible to avoid such an undesirable collision. The hope is that American and Russian forces have already worked out cooperation.

    It is by all means possible to understand the passions and attention of journalists. Capturing ISIS’ capital would be a grand media victory even more significant than the liberation of Palmyra. And Palmyra, in addition to its world fame for its cultural heritage, is extremely important infrastructurally as the “central intersection” of the Syrian desert.

    In addition to its military value as the seizure of one of ISIS strongholds, the capture of is Raqqa is also ideologically important. A successful storm of the city would show that the “Caliphate” can’t even keep what it has proclaimed to be its own home.

    If the Syrians, Russians, and Iranians achieve this, then they will show the whole world that they are the main fighters against terrorism and are fundamentally in control of the situation in the country. If the Americans and Kurds get ahead of them, then, firstly, the success at Palmyra will pale in comparison and, secondly, Raqqa, with its enormous slice of North-Eastern Syria, could be carved into a Kurdish national formation (whether federated or independent). 

    The US absolutely does not want to see Assad’s army in Raqqa. The State Department Spokesman, Mark Toner, directly stated: 

    “I do not have full information about the progress of the battle for Raqqa. If the city were to be liberated, then we would evaluate this like the liberation of Palmyra. It would be better than the presence of ISIS terrorists, but not much better.”

    How much further to Raqqa? The positions of each side

    For now, the possibility of clashes between Russian and US troops is unrealistic. The SDF have formally accumulated around 30 - 50,000 fighters  for the offensive according to different reports. In reality, however, only 4-5,000 of them have been deployed towards Raqqa and are mostly bogged down in positional battles for a few small villages. Although the Kurdish positions were originally 30-45 kilometers from Raqqa, they have essentially failed to advance. On the other hand, the SDF has built up a fairly successful offensive on the city of Manbij in the direction of Aleppo.

    Syrian government forces are successfully advancing in the direction of the city of Tabqa located 40 kilometers from Raqqa. According to some reports, they were able to advance up to 30-35 kilometers in the first few days. According to the latest information, the frontline units of the Syrian Army are positioned 18 kilometers from Tabqa. On the map below, the deployment of the Syrian Army (the yellow at the bottom) and Kurdish brigades (yellow at the top) can be seen in reference to the city of Raqqa located on the Euphrates river midway between these forces.

    Along the Homs-Raqqa highway are advancing Desert Falcon brigades, 18 tank divisions, 4 mechanized divisions, a regiment from Golan and the marine corps of Syria, with a total personnel of around 4,500 people. The road before them is being “cleared” by Russian attack helicopters. In addition to old Soviet tanks and conventional machine-gun-mounted trucks, a T-90 and the newest “Tiger” combat vehicle are taking part in the offensive. Media reports have said that Russian Spetsnaz are also operating on the ground with the Syrians.

    Using long-range communications, ISIS has tried to strike their flanks and cut off the group from the main force, but this has failed. Despite the fact that the terrorists have reported their move to the highway, this in fact turned out to be a lie - in reality, they moved forward a little, but were soon defeated and retreated. 

    Why is their no advance on Tabqa? Besides the fact that this is the “gateway” to Raqqa, there is also a hydroelectric power station and airfield, the control of which would untie the hands of Russian air forces. At the present moment, the home base of our aircraft is a bit distant from Raqqa, which adversely affects the capabilities of our airmen.

    Taking Tabqa would give the Syrians a significant advantage in the offensive on Raqqa.

    But then again, why are the Americans and the Kurds not throwing all of their forces towards Raqqa? It’s possible that the reason behind this is that they have other goals, namely, the necessity of seizing the above-mentioned town of Manbij. This city is one of the key points on the road between Aleppo and Raqqa. In addition, it is simultaneously a bridge between Syrian Islamic terrorists operating in the area and Turkey, as well as the barrier separating Kurdish enclaves. The latter deserves a more detailed discussion in order to understand the new plan of the US. 

    Kurdistan as a tool for dividing Syria

    In March 2016, Kurdish “cantons” announced the creation of a federal entity called Rojava in Northern Syria. The key role in this process was played by the “Democratic Union” which, according to statements by the Turks, is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party professing a national-Marxist ideology. The Democratic Union is not so much striving for independence from Syria as it is demanding autonomy from Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, this union plays a key role in the operations of the Kurdish self-defense brigades. In addition to the DU, there also exists the anti-Assad, more right-wing Kurdish National Council which insists that the “Democratic Union” is incapable of defending Kurdish interests. 

    Kurdish autonomy already de-facto exists, but de jure it is not recognized by Syria or neighboring countries. Assad has reacted to any talks on the autonomy of this or that region quite painfully, which has added fuel to the fire and strengthened the hitherto not-too-powerful Kurdish National Council. This is forcing the Democratic Union to engage in operations in order to restore its credibility. The Americans are cleverly playing with these contradictions and have hinted that they will protect the Kurds while trying to bring the Democratic Union closer to them by using the fact that it is located between Damascus and Ankara, i.e., between the hammer and the anvil. 

    When they started the revolutionary adventure in Damascus, the US needed all of Syria as a key transport hub of the Middle East. Assad was a key obstacle preventing American allies in the Persian Gulf from laying down pipelines through Syria running to Europe. Following the intervention of the Russian airforce, they were no longer capable of taking the whole of Syria. After all, how can they gain access to the sea in Latakia now that there’s a Russian base there?

    It is for this reason that the US has left its bet on Kurdistan, and moreover a Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish one, since access to the sea can now only be achieved via Turkey. The key to the process of this creation is Manbij, the capture of which would allow them to begin to physically unite the Kurdish “cantons” and access the “gate” to Turkey. 

    It’s clear that the Turks have figured some of this out and are not too happy about what’s happening, but who is asking them anyway? For the Persian Gulf Monarchies, it would of course be better to control this pipeline corridor directly through their spiritually dear and financed ISIS. But if the Caliphate in Syria fails, then in the worst case scenario there will still be the American-Kurdish variant. 

    Moscow and Damascus’ task is sufficiently difficult. First of all, they need to take Raqqa, which will be far from simple. Secondly, they have to stabilize the situation in the Aleppo area and thereby shuffle the Turks’ and Americans’ cards. Thirdly, and this depends 99% on Assad, they need to resume talks with the Kurds and persuade them to return to a normal existence in the framework of a unitary Syrian state, even a federal one. Completing this task would be an almost complete victory for Russia and Assad. The rest will just be matter of technique. 

    Seville 1936

    Similarities between the aspirations of the “allies” for Raqqa and 1945 undoubtedly exist. In both cases, Moscow and Washington competed for influence on a territory liberated from an aggressor. In both cases, the position of Moscow was more altruistic and constructive, while Washington’s was cynical. Then, just as now, the US fought with one hand while supporting the aggressor with the other. Just as how US special services cooperated with the Nazis, so do they now have close contacts with the terrorists.

    But the role of the battle for Raqqa in 2016 is inferior in importance to the role of the battle for Berlin in 1945. Rather, it is a prelude comparable in significance to the Spanish Civil War when each side tested its strength and tested new tactics and new kinds of weapons. The main battle will - God forbid that it comes to this - take place in the European and Far Eastern theaters - which is fine, if only it would be a political-economic and informational one. 

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