TLDR Up Front: Pressed on two fronts in north central Syria there is evidence ISIS is relocating its capital from Raqqa to Deir ez-Zor. Local Kurdish Syrian forces have been battling to encircle Raqqa for months; while a mix of Turkish, Syrian rebel, and Kurdish Syrian forces have battled ISIS – and sometimes each other – at the Battle of al-Bab. As ISIS retreats southeast, the Kurdish, rebel and Turkish forces will continue to trip over each other risking new conflict between these sides.
Battle for Raqqa (1)
Full Context in the Back:
In Drawn and Quartered the situation in Deir ez-Zor was explained – ISIS was making a final push to completely take control of the city from forces loyal to Assad despite Russian air support. The city makes a good location to place a new capital, sitting atop the Deir ez-Zor’s oil rich provinces, but its not clear whether ISIS will be given time to exploit them. And now the Pentagon has reported that ISIS is doing just that:
ISIS leaders “are beginning the process of leaving Raqqa and moving their operations farther downriver,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. He said an unspecified number of ISIS “bureaucrats” are heading east along the north bank of the Euphrates River toward Deir el-Zour, because they see “the end is near in Raqqa.”
“We are seeing now an exodus of their leadership,” Davis said, adding: “This seems to be a very organized, orderly withdrawal of a lot of their non-combatant support people.” (2)
A year long offensive by the Kurdish YPG and PKK in the north have continued to push ISIS forces south into their defensive bands around Raqqa. Now ostensibly “allied” under a coalition Syrian Defense Force (SDF), these military forces continue the slow efforts to encircle, isolate and capture Raqqa. (3)
To the northwest however Turkey’s intervention into Syria, with Syrian and Russian blessing, has been stalled at the town of al-Bab. There a mix of Turkish, SDF and the remnants of non-aligned rebel groups continue to fight against ISIS to gain control of the town. Although Turkey has claimed control of the town in recent days, those claims are disputed. (4)
This action is less an “Allied push into Germany” than it is a mud brawl. Sporadic skirmishes are not uncommon between the three forces attacking ISIS in al-Bab. Given the likely path of advance, and word that Turkey is putting pressure on US to be “allowed” to take Raqqa, there is an increasing geographic risk that Turkish forces will come up more frequently with the battle hardened SDF forces around Raqqa. These sides bear no love for one another, PKK is an outlawed terrorist group within Turkey and the YPG has no fondness either for the country that amongst many other sins blocked the land resupply of Kobani for so long.
Some readers may be familiar with a recent debate started by Roy Gutman from an article in the Nation asking “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?” (5) My short and brutally honest answer would be: “Yes.” But show me the army engaged in a campaign of squad-to-squad infantry conflict that is fought village-by-village against a vicious, determined and highly effective enemy. The better question is to what extent? Individual crimes are not the same as systemic malfeasance. Were individuals held accountable? And/or were steps taken to otherwise minimize the necessary impact of village to village fighting to root out ISIS?
By way of example are the descriptions of evacuation and destruction of some villages. Evacuation of a village can be ethnic cleansing – or a prudent course of action if one expects to engage in house-to-house combat. And destruction of homes can be a war crime if wanton and needless, or if a military necessity and proportionally contained jus in bello. (6)
I can’t rebut Gutman myself personally, I’m 5,000 miles away so what do I know. But the style of reporting looks more like a hit job and the responses I’m seeing in rebuttal are clarifying, respectful and thoughtful. By way of example here is one from Jawad al-Tamimi who I follow because he does the best job ever of keeping track of ISIS’s pocket lint. (7)(8)
Then there’s an equally clarifying, albeit less respectful and more colorful rebuttal from my favorite American who-hates-my-capitalist-perspective fighting in Syria. An individual with the twitter handle Lenin_Lover69@PissPigGrandad has been tweeting a veritable Jane Goddall life-among-the leftists viewpoint of fighting within the YPG militias for a few months now. (9) It’s a great perspective of what life is like on the ground, as opposed to sterile reviews from afar, like mine. PissPigGrandad participated in a podcast recently where he described the process by which he joined the Kurdish YPG, life on the front and the efforts to encircle Raqqa, as well as a rebuttal to Gutman’s article. (10)
I’m not going to make predictions on when Raqqa will fall. Before we get there we have to get past how the Turkish, SDF Kurds (YPG and PKK) as well as the remaining Syrian rebel forces all manage to work together. As al-Bab falls and everyone lines up around Raqqa there may be an opportunity to establish zones of operation; similar to Mosul. But if Turkey demands the prize for themselves and attempts to encircle Raqqa, they will come into military contact with the SDF. What happens then? And when Raqqa falls, who takes control? It’s one thing to allow Turkey to take credit (and the casualties) for taking Raqqa. But it’s quite another to allow them to occupy a city long term in the heart of Syria.
As is so often the case it’s not just the battle plans that matter. It’s the “plans for the day-after” that matter just as much.
(8) Don’t click on this link if you don’t want to be added to watch lists. http://www.aymennjawad.org/2016/01/archive-of-islamic-state-administrative-documents-1
(9) Need I say NSFW again? https://twitter.com/pisspiggranddad?lang=en
(10) Seriously, again, NSFW. https://soundcloud.com/chapo-trap-house/episode-82-war-is-heck-feat-pisspiggranddad-21317