The Kurdish Offensive on Raqqa and Interests of Global Stakeholders

Kurdish formations are the most efficient forces opposing ISIS in Syria, but the operation to retake Raqqa can be stalled, because a number of stakeholders are not interested in excessive strengthening of the Kurds, Valdai Club experts believe.

On Tuesday, the Syrian Democratic Forces, consisting mainly of Kurdish People’s Self-Defense Forces (YPG), launched assault on Raqqa, the unofficial capital of the ISIS terrorist organization (banned in Russia by court order). According to the Valdai Club experts, Kurds are unlikely to take Raqqa alone, but the prospects for coordinated ground operations are more than vague.

“Kurds need support, perhaps even from the Syrian government,” said Hüseyin Bağcı, Professor and Chair at the Department of International Relations, Middle East Technical University in Ankara, in an interview with “Coordination between the troops of the Assad government and the international coalition is needed here.”

According to Bağcı, an agreement between the United States and Russia on who will control this region of Syria is of key importance. “The local forces – the Kurds and the Arabs supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad – will probably get Raqqa back. But it will probably take longer than they expect due to what is happening now in the Middle East because of Qatar,” he said. “Further dialogue will develop between the United States and Russia.”

He is echoed by Zvi Magen, Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at the Tel Aviv University, former diplomat and member of the Israel’s General Staff intelligence department. “In general, without an agreement between the main players – Russia, the United States and the West as a whole – nothing concrete will be achieved on the ground,” he said. “Ground forces are important. Until now, the Kurds have been the best fighters, while all others give advice without directly entering clashes. A lot depends on ISIS itself: if it is really weak, if its capabilities are limited, then maybe it is time to start to pressure, because the problem cannot be solved with airstrikes alone.”

Magen is skeptical about the Syrian army’s capabilities. “Assad's army – or what is left of it – did not show itself well in this confrontation,” he said. “If it was not for the presence of Russian troops, it could be easily swept away. If we are talking about its operational capabilities and mobility, then it does not have many chances to achieve a major victory.”

At the same time, fighting efficiency of the Kurdish formations is related to their high motivation, Magen stressed. “They are not fighting for a particular territory, they are fighting for recognition from regional and world players, for their future independence or at least conditions of their future existence, so they are ready to prove their capabilities in any military contact,” he said.

This worries Turkey, which negatively regards the Kurdish activity. “The Turks would like to see the palm of victory over Raqqa in hands of someone else than the Kurds: at best of themselves,” Zvi Magen said. “There is more a tug-of-war than realization of operational interests. Until now, the capture of Raqqa has not been not successful for anyone: in an ideal scenario this should be a coordinated, concentrated attack from different directions, but now it is impossible.”

Turkey will keep a wait-and-see attitude, Bağcı believes. “The Turkish government is very careful not to be together with the Kurds against ISIS, because the Turkish position is that the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey, are the same,” he said. “It will depend on how the US will behave, whether it continues to supply weapons to YPG.”

According to Magen, Ankara is also concerned about the possible strengthening of the influence of Iran, which is formally a partner of Turkey and Russia in the Astana process. “Turkey is not preoccupied only with Raqqa: the question of the future division of Syria, or, as Russia calls it, federalization of the country, is important,” he said. “There are several players who would prefer not to consider the future of Syria as a unified state. Iran’s intentions to strengthen its presence, at least in the northern part of Syria, are expressed very clearly. Turkey does not like it very much, despite the fact that now Turks are Iran’s allies. Turkey would like not to allow the Kurds and Iran to seize the territories, it would like to have its own influence there.”

Other Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Persian Gulf states – are also worried about Iran’s strengthening. According to Magen, the main global forces are focused on the capture of Raqqa, but the leading player – the US – has not yet said its last word. “There is tough confrontation, involving global players,” he said. “The United States must decide with whom and against whom they play in this field. They have a delay for tactical reasons – as they decide, so it will be. Who will take Raqqa is a vague question.”

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.