Raqqa Offensive: No Calm Future for Syria

Raqqa’s seizure could create new problems for the Kurds. For them is more important to lift the blockade of the Afrin Canton in the western part Syria.

The Raqqa offensive is the main topic of military reports from Syria in the last two weeks. Syrian Kurds and the government forces are advancing toward Raqqa from different directions. The Kurds started the offensive three days after General Joseph Votel, Commander of the United States Central Command, secretly visited on May 21 the areas in Northern Syria, which are controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. This visit was presented by the White House as the beginning of the offensive on Raqqa, carried out by the Kurds with the support of the US Special Forces.

Meanwhile, in the night of June 3 the Syrian army also began the attack against Raqqa, advancing a few kilometers into the province of the same name. According to some observers, the government and Kurdish forces enter into a kind of race for the city takeover, but the Kurds have a good reason not to speed up the offensive.

Taking Raqqa is not a priority for the Kurds. For them is more important to lift the blockade of the Afrin Canton in the western part of the country. "The participation of the Kurdish rebels in an American special operation on the liberation of Raqqa was largely due to the US pressure. Americans understand, that Kurds have no alternatives in the fight against ISIS", Nodar Mosaki, senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in interview to valdaiclub.com.

The population of Raqqa and its surrounding area is mixed, Arab-Kurdish. According to Viktor Nadein-Raevsky, researcher of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), this mixture is the result of the policy pursued by Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president. "At that time, - the expert reminded, - Hafez al-Assad has set the task to clear the north of the Kurds in a ten-mile zone from the Turkish border. Arabs were settled there and Kurds were evicted - especially to create a buffer zone and to cut Syrian Kurds off Turkish and the Iraqi Kurds."

In recent years, a myth began to spread among the Kurds that historically Raqqa was the Kurdish territory and was subsequently Arabized, like Kirkuk in Iraq, Mosaki said. But strategic analysis shows that Raqqa’s seizure could create new problems for the Kurds. "They have a premonition of serious and hardly predictable problems which could bring the occupation of city and its inclusion into the so-called Federation of Northern Syria", - the expert said.

Despite the difficult history of relations with the Assad regime, it is now possible to talk about rapprochement of positions between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds, Viktor Nadein-Raevsky said. "Officially, the Syrian government did not condemn the formation of a cantonal autonomy [the Kurdish autonomy was proclaimed on March 17, 2016 - Ed.]. This conciliated positions of the Kurds and the government. But it's hard to say whether the Syrian government consistently follows this position in the future. The fact is that among Assad supporters there are a lot of Arab nationalists, many of them follow principles of pan-Arabism and are not inclined to respect the rights of other nations. They will oppose the Kurdish autonomy ", - the expert explained.

Considering that all opposition forces in Syria are unequivocally against any federalization of the country, the Kurds have to remain self-reliant and play upon differences between the remaining participants of the Intra-Syrian confrontation. Nodar Mosaki said that behind-the-scene leaders of the Syrian Kurds point to some "usefulness" of ISIS, because it legitimizes the dream that previously seemed fantastic. "For the Kurds the situation seems favorable when ISIS and other forces, opposing Damascus, would have actually made impossible future centralization of the country. But they should not be strong enough to threaten the Kurds", - the expert said.

Because all Syrian opposition forces are against any sort of federalization, the Kurds are forced to rely on their own strength, as well as on the antagonisms between other participants of the Syrian conflict. According to Mosaki, Syrian Kurd leaders silently believe that ISIS has some “utility,” which legitimizes dreams that were previously unrealistic.

“The Kurds consider it beneficial when ISIS and other forces in confrontation with Damascus practically made it impossible to centralize the country in the future, but are also not strong enough to threaten the Kurds,” he said.

According to Nadein-Raevsky, Russia maintains a strong relationship with both the Syrian government and the Kurds. He believes that Moscow is pressuring Damascus to move toward federalization.

“There can be no other decision on this issue after such a bloodbath. Ethnic and religious minorities must be protected. If this does not happen, Syria will not have a calm future,” Nadein-Raevsky said.

The Kurdish forces military success, together with diplomatic and material support from Moscow and Washington is clearly a concern for Turkey.

“It’s no secret that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is a Syrian affiliate of Turkey’s well-known Kurdistan Workers’ Party,” he added.

On May 30, Turkey offered to conduct a military operation together with the US in northern Syria, on the condition that Kurds do not participate. According to Mosaki, Turkey completely understands how unrealistic its offer sounds.

“These statements and offers by the Turkish government are first of all aimed at a domestic audience to save face after the failure of the policy of supporting ISIS to destroy the Kurdish movement, which led the US to support the Syrian Kurds,” Mosaki said.

The disagreements between Washington and Ankara on the Kurdish issue, however, do not point to a crisis in relations.

“Recognizing Turkey’s importance in the region and refusing Turkish demands to stop cooperating with the PYD, Washington will continue to support close relations with Ankara, despite antagonisms regarding the issue of Syrian Kurds, and call Turkey ‘an important link in the anti-ISIS coalition.’ Because of that, the crisis in US-Turkey relations regarding Syrian Kurds is manageable from both sides and will not lead to serious consequences,” Mosaki said.

According to Nadein-Raevsky, Turkey will not change its position regarding Kurds.

“As long as Erdogan, who usurped power as dictators do, and is pushing through changes to the constitution, that would give him broad presidential authority, remains in power, the Kurds will be a stumbling block. It was the Kurds that did not give him a majority in last summer’s elections, and he still cannot overcome this defeat, even though everything went well for him in November, and he won a majority in parliament, insufficient as it was, but still capable of making constitutional changes,” Nadein-Raevsky said.

It cannot be said that the US completely trusts the Syrian Kurds, considering the PYD’s leftist ideology and its connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which the US and Turkey consider a terrorist organization.

“The fact that Syrian Kurds take guidance from Ocalan shows that they are leftists. This does not please the Americans at all,” Nadein-Raevsky added.

According to Mosaki, it is still possible that the US would try to contain the Kurds using other forces in Syria.

“The US could use the non-ISIS Islamist opposition against Syrian Kurds if the latter show excessive self-reliance as a result of dizziness from success,” he said. As a result, “the balance of power created and controlled by the United States in Syria could make them an arbiter of last resort.”
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