SDF announces the launch of Raqqa operation. Photo: Raqqa liberation/Facebook
This is not an end of wars in Syria and neither does it signal the final defeat of ISIS. But the taking of Raqqa does represent a crucial milestone. Together with liberation of Iraq’s Mosul past July, the liberation of Raqqa completes a territorial defeat of ISIS. At least one of the sources of disarray in Syria is now diminished, opening new possibilities for the political transition in Syria, as set out in the UN resolution 2254.
Syria is now in its sixth year of devastating violence. It has become a field of not just one but many simultaneous wars where local, regional and global actors have their respective sectarian, revisionist or domination interests. Locally, three major local actors have been at each other’s throats. There are insurgents, predominantly Sunni Muslims, which are dispersed into various political and militant factions; The Alawite-dominated governmental military are backed by outside Shiite forces; and there are predominantly Kurdish Syrians forming the third group.
At the regional level Sunni Arab states support the insurgence in Syria. The Islamic Republic of Iran supports the Assad regime; while Israel resists the Shiite predominance in the region, as well as the strengthening of Hezbollah as a fighting force. Turkey is trying to curb the emergence of sovereign entity of Kurds while at the same time stands with the International community in its dual goal of defeating terrorism and removing Assad from power.
On the global level, the United States and the European countries are opposed by the Russian Federation which backs Assad. China is periodically an offshore balancer, as in the case of vetoing six Syrian resolutions alongside Russia.
This geopolitical puzzle is not easy to solve, as the pieces cannot fit perfectly. For the West the preference is to defeat terrorism, curb the illegal migration and security threats and ensure political transition in Syria. For Russia the goal is to keep the regime in one form or the other, fight one kind of terrorism from time to time and tolerate others, also from time to time, for geopolitical reasons. Solving this pattern seems difficult, even with the important milestone of the territorial defeat of ISIS.
Indeed the taking of Raqqa ends the illusion of "Caliphate” and might diminish the attractiveness of the ISIS ideology to the new recruits. In months’ time, the refugees and displaced persons might return homes and start rebuilding the societal fabric in the cities. But the terrorist threat has not evaporated.
The ISIS will continue to retreat from strongholds such as Deir az-zor and move further into the deserts. However, the insurgency will not yet abate and might even evolve in its scale and pace.
Squeezed in its base, ISIS might augment its terrorist activities elsewhere by appealing to their supporters to fight where they are instead of heading to Syria and joining the Caliphate. The Western countries would need to become more resilient and have a sharper focus on analyzing and countering such challenges.
Importantly, the territorial defeat of ISIS does not affect the other ongoing war in Syria – the civil war against the Assad regime. It seems that since the fall of Aleppo and the start of the Astana talks in January, with the leadership from Russia, Iran and Turkey and the USA and the UN serving as observers, things have become comparatively calmer on the ground.
The four de-escalation zones are functioning, while the issue of removal of Assad from power has been put on the back burner of the world agenda. The USA has shifted their weight towards the military operation against ISIS. Trump administration has made several moves towards that end: the US has empowered the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in their fight against ISIS, while closing down the CIA’s program to arm rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad. The US has also engaged in negotiations with Russia to establish de- escalation zones along the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
According to one strand of analysis
"deal” with "Vladimir Putin on a truce in Syria secured Assad’s position, vindicated Iran’s and Russia’s commitment and furthered Iran’s wish to become the dominant player in the region”.
The EU continues to focus on the humanitarian efforts. Commissioner Federica Mogherini has organized a special meeting on Syria on the sidelines of the 72nd UN General Assembly, where she announced the second donors’ conference, pledging
that the EU is willing to provide "for the early recovery in the de-escalation zones and the liberated areas of Syria while continuing to work on and invest in the future of the country”.
However, it is high time for both the EU and the US to think ahead through which channels to direct the aid money and resources? Russia has never been interested nor does it have a track record of solving the conflicts. On the contrary, its footprint in the Caucasus and elsewhere has been to freeze the conflicts, establish its firm political and military presence and use the potential of escalation as a bargaining chip on the international diplomatic arena.
The violence has abated somewhat but all of those sources of instability that prompted the conflict in Syria remain firmly in place, therefore a hands on Western involvement and strong initiative is necessary to make sure that these small victories transform into meaningful peace and stability for Syria.
It is naive to think that Syria can be stabilized under Assad, whereas it is also too early to tell whether the twin victories of territorial defeat of ISIS and establishing the four de-escalation zones as per Astana talks could automatically burgeon into a meaningful political transition and the re-birth of a new Syrian state, without heavy involvement of the USA and the EU.
Dr. Eka Akobia is a professor and the Dean of the School of Governance at the Caucasus University and Associate Professor at Tbilisi State University. In 2012-2016 she was the Director for the Department of Asia, Africa and the Pacific at the Foreign Ministry of Georgia.