by Paul Iddon.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backer were extremely dismissive towards the United States-backed operation that is removing Islamic State (ISIS) from the group’s de-facto Syrian capital city Raqqa. At first, in last April he mocked the lengthy delay of the operation into Raqqa city, because the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) initially begun to isolate and cut off the city last November 7 but did not begin the operation into the actual city until early this June.
Shortly thereafter, Sergey Surovikin, the commander of the Russian military forces in Syria, quickly charged US-led coalition and the SDF of colluding with ISIS: “Instead of eliminating terrorists guilty of killing hundreds and thousands of Syrian civilians, the US-led coalition together with the Democratic Forces Union [sic] controlled by it enters into collusion with ringleaders of the ISIL who give up the settlements they had seized without fighting and head to the provinces where the Syrian government forces are active.”
Assad’s dismissal was quite hollow given his own record fighting the militants. Raqqa was the first of two provincial capitals his forces lost complete control over (the other being Idlib to Turkish-backed Islamist forces in early 2015). Raqqa later fell to ISIS by January 2014. Syrian forces were forced from the entirety of Raqqa province by ISIS in August 2014, when the militants captured the Al-Tabqa airbase after a lengthy siege. An ill-prepared attempt by the regime to reclaim a foothold in the province in June 2016 was completely repelled by the militants. Today all of Al-Tabqa, the airbase and the dam, is in the hands of the SDF.
Russia’s ridiculous claim of a kind of conspiracy between US-led coalition and ISIS is nothing new. For example, in December 2016 they alleged the US purposely done nothing when ISIS advanced on Palmyra, which they captured again from the Syrian military. Moscow also insinuated earlier that the US intentionally left Mosul’s western approaches open to enable ISIS to flee that metropolis over the border into Syria and then swamp Syrian Army positions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even went so far as to speculate that Washington may have done to provide a “respite” to the anti-regime forces the Russians were then bombarding in East Aleppo. Interestingly, there is substantial evidence that indicates the initial Russian-backed Syrian operation against ISIS in Palmyra on March 2016 was a success largely because they had negotiated an ISIS withdrawal in advance. In other words, people in glass houses should not throw stones!
However, there is a grain of truth to the claim that the western approach to Mosul was intentionally left open. An Iraqi special forces commander named Major Salam Jassim said as much just before the operation began. However Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, an Iraqi military spokesman, declared that if ISIS do try and flee “then this area will become a killing zone as we target them with our own aircraft.”
Even if it doesn’t appear at first glance, obvious escape ways are a tactical move to safely neutralize ISIS militants and avoid doing harm to civilians trapped in cities and towns held by the group. Already in late June 2016, the US-led coalition, along with the Iraqi Air Force, pulverized an ISIS convoy fleeing the western Iraqi city of Fallujah in late June 2016.
The SDF did indeed offer ISIS amnesties in return for pulling their forces out of population centers. In Al-Tabqa, back in May 2017, the SDF successfully got ISIS to surrender heavy weapons and even dismantle their own improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted around the city’s important dam. The US-led coalition were even able to target some of the fleeing militants who “could be safely hit without harming civilians“. Not a bad strategy since it can save civilian lives.
It seems as if a such strategy would even be in the interest of Russia. When the US-backed Iraqi military operation to remove ISIS from Mosul began last October, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he hoped that not many civilians would be killed. Later Russia condemned the US for the civilian death toll incurred during the battle. Of course, these statements could be interpreted as hypocritical rather than genuine concern for the welfare of innocent Moslawis considering the Russian/Syrian Air Forces’ simultaneous bombardment of East Aleppo with wantonly destructive weapons, such as cluster and incendiary bombs. Use of unguided conventional bombs over urban areas is bad enough, use of those kind of weapons is indicative of a callous disregard for civilian life.
The Iraqi Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries later rushed in to close Mosul’s unguarded western gap in October, completely encircling the metropolis. A Reuters report calculated that this action was bound to increase civilian casualties in the Mosul battle and make the battle longer since ISIS would have no choice but to fight to the last man inside the city. After all, bombing ISIS convoys outside the city in open areas could have resulted in far fewer civilian casualties than trying to target them in the city with air and artillery strikes.
US and SDF conduct in Raqqa certainly isn’t perfect. Fighting ruthless militants in an urban environment is bound to incur civilian casualties. However this force, imperfect as it might be, is clearly the best available option to efficiently remove the militants and afflict another major territorial loss against them. One far more significant than any neither Assad nor the Russians have achieved to date, despite what their blithe and dismissive statements imply.
Dismissive statements aside there was a danger both powers would try to actively undermine the offensive. The Syrian Su-22 warplane the US shot down on June 18 was attacking SDF positions near Al-Tabqa, which one hopes they had honestly mistaken for ISIS. Any other such incident has the potential to spark a dangerous standoff in the area between US forces in Syria and Damascus, whose forces have advanced into the western countryside of Raqqa, and possibly even compromise this current operation. A horrid outcome which only ISIS would benefit from.
Rather than being so critical and dismissive toward the US-SDF effort in Raqqa, or worse risk thwarting it, Damascus and Moscow should instead focus on their joint efforts on removing ISIS from the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. They have a strategic self-interest in doing so since it could give Assad a foothold back in eastern Syria and enable him to link-up with Syrian soldiers who have long been holding out against the militants in that city. ISIS has been attacking this garrison and could potentially overrun it if this force is are not substantially reinforced in the coming months. Such a defeat would give ISIS an alternative stronghold to Raqqa and forestall the complete destruction of the self-styled caliphate.
Presently the regime is marching south of Raqqa toward Deir Ezzor while the SDF makes headway in the ISIS capital, where they’ve reportedly captured almost half of the city. This is far more productive on their part than idly dismissing out of hand the honest efforts the US and their Kurdish-led allies have been making to defeat these marauding militants.