First Published: 2017-10-22

No clear US strategy in Syria after Raqqa liberation
'Our new strategy is to annihilate ISIS. It’s not clear what that means. Are they going to kill every member?' RAND Corporation political analyst Ben Connable.
Middle East Online

By Simon Speakman Cordall - TUNIS

As armoured personnel carriers of the victori­ous Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) performed doughnuts amid the rubble of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital, a difficult chapter in Syria’s seven years of carnage closed, just as a more uncertain one began.

US President Donald Trump was keen to take credit for the coalition advance at Raqqa, telling Washing­ton radio station WMAL that the city’s liberation had “to do with the people I put in and it had to do with rules of engagement… I to­tally changed the attitudes of the military.”

Asked why the Islamic State (ISIS) hadn’t been defeated earlier, Trump responded: “Because you didn’t have Trump as your presi­dent.”

Irrespective of celebrations in Washington, as the SDF deals with the fallout of a city reeling from years of ISIS occupation, strate­gists in both the Kurdish resistance and the Pentagon mulled their next steps in a war that appears to have lost direction.

As ISIS falls back to the deserts of Syria or melts into the towns and villages of the countryside, the next move of the US personnel in Syria, beyond the immediate sta­bilisation of reclaimed territory, is unclear.

“The original strategy was to degrade, defeat or destroy ISIS but none of those words was ever clearly defined,” RAND Corpora­tion political analyst Ben Connable said in a telephone interview. “Our new strategy is to annihilate ISIS. It’s not clear what that means. Are they going to kill every member?”

“The real challenge is that there’s never really been a strategy. There’s just been a series of tactical objec­tives dressed up as a strategy.”

Ostensibly, the US mandate in Syria is reliant upon its presence in Iraq, where its intervention was called for by Baghdad to help counter ISIS. Given the United States’ antipathy towards the Syr­ian regime, Damascus was less en­thusiastic about requesting such aid.

The Pentagon sidestepped dip­lomatic niceties by referring to a UN provision allowing for conflict intervention on humanitarian grounds should the host state ap­pear “incapable or unwilling” of countering that threat alone.

From a practical perspective, whether that remains the case af­ter the 2015 intervention of Rus­sia, Iran and Hezbollah in Syria is a moot point. Certainly, following the fall of Raqqa, many of ISIS’s re­maining Syrian strongholds, prin­cipally those along the Euphrates Valley, remain under assault either by the regime, its proxies or their allies.

Despite the Americans’ part in an undeniably symbolic victory at Raqqa, their room to manoeuvre in Syria is shrinking. The regime enjoys a practical hegemony along the country’s west, while the Kurds remain dominant in its north.

The various “deconfliction zones” agreed between Iran, Tur­key and Russia serve to check US ambitions and, barred from entry, restrict American forces’ freedom of movement.

“So, say we take all of the terri­tory, what then?” Connable asked. “What’s our mandate? There’s still no strategy.”

Regime change, once the prin­cipal US policy towards Syria, ap­pears to have fallen by the wayside in the drive to annihilate ISIS. US Defence Secretary James Mattis in April said that a change in the Syr­ian leadership was not a priority for the Trump administration.

In the absence of regime change, however, it appears unlikely that any rapprochement may occur, not least after the United States at­tacked regime positions following the chemical weapons attacks this year.

However, US positions in Iraq are, as before, vulnerable to attack from Syria.

“I think we’re probably going to see a US force along the border for some time,” Connable said. “How that will fit with the regime’s ad­vance along the Euphrates, (which crosses into Iraq) I don’t know but they’re going to want to protect their positions in Iraq.”

However, as the SDF celebrates its hard-won, bloody victory in Raqqa, those questions must seem a long way off. For their American allies, who trained, equipped and advised them through the cam­paign, the dilemma must appear more immediate.

Simon Speakman Cordall is a section editor with The Arab Weekly.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

 

At least 235 killed in Egypt mosque attack

Saudi Crown Prince calls Iran supreme leader 'new Hitler'

Syrian opposition agrees to send united delegation to Geneva talks

Saudi-led coalition clears passenger flights to Sanaa

Baghdad's Shabandar cafe marks century since opening

Turkey says Trump pledged to stop arming Kurds

Turkey president sues main opposition party leader

Lebanon's Hariri brings status quo back with him

Activists say 'everybody knew' about Libya slave trade

Erdogan says no contact 'at the moment' with Assad

Lebanon's Jumblatt criticises Saudi Arabia, Iran

China says it will make efforts on Syria reconstruction

Turkey to detain 79 former teachers in post-coup probe

Hezbollah hails PM's suspension of resignation

Syrian opposition aims for unity at talks in Riyadh

Egypt police kill 3 Islamists in shootout

Turkey unsure if Assad to be part of Syria political transition

Migrant arrivals from Libya down since EU deal

Palestinian factions leave Cairo talks with little progress

Sudan’s Bashir looks to Putin for ‘protection’ from US aggression

China, Djibouti forge 'strategic' ties

IS propaganda channels fall quiet in 'unprecedented' hiatus

Kremlin to create Syria congress despite Turkey ‘reservations’

Netanyahu berates deputy minister for 'offensive' remarks on US Jews

Egypt PM heads to Germany for medical treatment

Egypt destroys 10 SUVs carrying arms on Libya border

Outrage in Iraq over 'child marriage' bill

Iraq launches operation to clear last IS holdouts from desert

Saudi-led coalition to reopen Yemen airport, port to aid

Turkey court rules to keep Amnesty chief in jail

France calls for UN meeting on Libya slave-trading

Egypt detains 29 for allegedly spying for Turkey

WTO panel to hear Qatar’s complaint against UAE blockade

Three dead as diphtheria spreads in Yemen

Lebanon’s Hariri suspends resignation

Israel seizes explosive material at Gaza border

Activists call for release of UK journalist held by IS

Bahrain upholds jail sentence for activist

Iraq attacks at lowest since 2014

Turkey continues crackdown in post-coup probe

Hariri back in Lebanon

Putin to hold Syria peace talks with Erdogan, Rouhani

US carries out air strikes against IS in Libya

Divided Syria opposition meets in Riyadh

Lebanon's Hariri in Egypt ahead of return home