April 27, 2017

Battles for Raqqa and Mosul

Corneliu Pivariu. Photographer: Ionus Paraschiv.

The battles for Raqqa and Mosul in the geopolitics of the Middle East and beyond

By Corneliu Pivariu.

During 2016, Daesh lost about 30% of the territories controlled in Syria and Iraq. The most important fighting in the second half of last year was focused in the areas Mosul and Raqqa, so according to the Pentagon plan, the two regions must be hit simultaneously in order to stop Daesh from focusing fully on one or another.

In the fights for Mosul, where the Iraqi army represents the main force against Daesh, from October 2016 to around 25 February this year, control was taken over the eastern area of the city until the river Tiger as well as the airport in the western area. Daesh organized strong resistance on the Tiger, the old city and the western part, and the fighting could last for at least several months if they are fought in the same way they have been until now. Since the beginning of the offensive till present, over 160,000 refugees have been registered, and in the area controlled by Daesh it is estimated there are still about 800,000 civilians, some sources mention about 300,000 of them are children who could eventually be used as human shields by Daesh.

As for Raqqa, although Daesh declared this city as their capital, it is smaller by about 220,000 inhabitants. It is situated on the Euphrates, about 40 kilometers from Tabka dam (which led to the establishment of Lake Assad, the biggest in Syria, built with Soviet technical assistance in 1968-1973). The campaign to eliminate Daesh from this area was set in three deliberate phases, starting by 6 November 2016: isolation from the north, isolation from the west and in the third phase started on 4 February 2017 – isolation from the east.

This time the situation is much more complex, due to the interests and the involvement of various forces: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF – over 30,000 troops armed, trained and supported by the USA); Kurd People’s Protection Units YPG – about 25,000 troops also allies of SDF and also under the US umbrella, but definitely not supported by Turkey); some 500 troops from the American special forces. It is worth knowing that in August 2016 Turkey launched operation Euphrates Shield with the aim to ensure control of the southern frontier, to fight Daesh and to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurd area north of Syria.

President Erdogan grants special relevance to the Raqqa offensive and he aims mainly to reduce the participation of Kurd troops – YPG in this fight; he does that by trying to involve as many of the Gulf countries as possible in the campaign against Daesh. In this sense, we mention intense contact and disputes at high levels of decision-making: the visit to Ankara of CIA director Mike Pompeo on 9 February, followed a few days later by a delegation of Turkish diplomats and intelligence officers’ visit to Washington; the meeting of US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Gen. Joseph Dunford with his Turk homologue at the Incirlik base on 17 February; the meeting of Turk premier Binali Yildirim with the American vice-president Mike Pence at the Munich Security Conference.

Also there was president Erdogan’s tour in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in mid-February, in order to get these countries to participate with troops in the Raqqa campaign, which is in full accordance with the American intent to include as many Arabs as possible in the coalition to liberate the city and Syria. Even if they do not participate with numerous troops, (Saudi Arabia is involved in the military operations in Yemen, Bahrain will send a small contingent in exchange for Riyadh’s promise to help with security forces in case the involvement in Syria causes internal protests in Bahrain, and Qataris will participate due to their military alliance with Turkey).

In the same context, the head of the Regional Government in Kurdistan – Mahmoud Barzani visited Turkey for two days (26-27 February), where he met president Erdogan, premier Binali Yildirim and other Turk high officials, including the MIT chief – Hakan Fidan. Turkey wishes the Kurdish troops Rojava Peshmerga (some 7,000 fighters supported by Barzani and trained by the Turkish troops) return to Syria. A delegation of the Kurd National Council arrived in Washington on 27 February, where they discussed at the Department of State about the situation in Syria, and mostly about the Kurd issue, including the potential return of the Rojava fighters in northern Syria.

Interesting analyses can be formulated on the future moves that Iran, Russia and the troops loyal to Bashar al Assad will make in this context. In case the USA and their allies – especially Turkey are successful in the battle over Raqqa, this could mean a better position for the USA in the negotiations for a solution in Syria. The talks between USA and Turkey to create security areas in northern Syria are considered by Russia and Iran as undermining the territorial integrity of Syria. However, the USA is not yet ready to offer Turkey what they want after a potential victory in Raqqa

Potential victories in Mosul and Raqqa during the first half of this year would be a point won by the Administration from Washington in the meeting Trump-Putin, expected for July 2017.

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Photography by INGEPO Consulting. Photographer: Ionus Paraschiv.

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