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.