Palmyra’s recapture triggers race to Raqqa

Friday 08/04/2016
Change in plans

DAMASCUS - The Islamic State’s major defeat in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra has trig­gered a race to capture the terrorist group’s de facto capital, Raqqa.
The competition, between the Syrian Army and its allied mili­tias on the one hand and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other, is said to have forced Damascus to shift its next battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) from the oil-rich province of Deir ez-Zor to Raqqa, fearing the Kurdish-dominated SDF might beat them to it and claim interna­tional praise.
Strategists and military analysts say commanders on both sides are planning for the “post-Palmyra stage” amid reports that ISIS com­manders and their families were fleeing Raqqa in anticipation of the battle to liberate the city.
The change in regime plans comes in the wake of the army’s capture of Al-Qaryatain, a strategic town near Palmyra through which main oil and gas pipelines pass. The town is on a main supply route for ISIS militants entrenched in the western Al-Qalamoun area near the Lebanese border.
The regime’s battle for Raqqa has become urgent to check the ad­vance of SDF, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
“Taking over Raqqa is of a major importance for the regime because it would cut off ISIS-held areas in rural Aleppo and Homs from Deir ez-Zor and facilitate the army’s ad­vance in both directions, westward and eastward,” said an analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He argued that the Syrian air strikes on Al-Tabqa military air­field in Raqqa’s western country­side on April 2nd signaled the re­gime’s intentions. “This was a first move followed by air raids on ISIS-held territories in Hama’s northern and eastern countryside, which the army needs to pass through on its way to Raqqa,” he said.
“That is why I believe the Syrian troops will move quickly in Raqqa’s direction to expel ISIS before the SDF does,” the analyst said. “The regime wants to show to the world that it is serious about fighting ISIS and thus will not allow the Kurds, moving under the SDF umbrella, to achieve victory.”
He noted that the timing of SDF’s dash towards the city is “suspi­cious” because the militants have been stationed close to Raqqa for nine months “but have not budged”.
The main absentee from the bat­tle remains the Syrian opposition groups whose militants in Raqqa’s countryside and eastern rural Aleppo have joined the SDF, which prioritises fighting ISIS militants over combating regime troops and their allied militias.
In any event, the expulsion of ISIS from Raqqa would be a major step that neither Damascus nor the SDF can decide alone. Key regional and international players, includ­ing Moscow, Washington, Ankara, Riyadh and Tehran, will have a say, according to military analysts.
One scenario is that Syrian troops would reach Raqqa before the SDF. However, they need to flush ISIS from rural Hama first to clear the way, 150km of flat, uncovered ter­rain across the desert. “Russian warplanes need to back the army’s advance. It will then take only a few hours for the troops to reach Mount Qassarat, which overlooks the city,” one analyst said.
Another scenario previews the army’s simultaneous advance along the Hama-Raqqa highway, which crosses the desert from the western side.
Syrian warplanes have been bombing ISIS posts on the highway, which leads directly to al-Tabqa airfield, lost to ISIS in a humiliating battle in which hundreds of army troops were killed in August 2014.
On the Kurdish front, the SDF is preparing to “liberate” Raqqa with the backing of the international coalition but support of the city’s Arab residents will be crucial, Saleh Muslim, the Paris-based head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Par­ty (PYD), said in recent statements.
The chief of the PYD, which is allied to the SDF, was referring to Raqqa Rebels’ Brigade, a militia of local tribesmen that has joined the SDF in the fight against ISIS. In 2015, it participated in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) of­fensive on the Syrian border city of Tal Abyad and was able to increase its strength because of the influx of rebels from Turkey and locals op­posed to ISIS.
The SDF controls a 15km strip, stretching around Raqqa’s eastern, northern and western sides, leav­ing only the southern side open for the Syrian Army.
Yet, another scenario, which is not hard to imagine, is that ISIS would give up Raqqa as it did Tal Abyad. Sources inside Raqqa dis­closed that, following the fall of Palmyra, senior ISIS leaders and their families were leaving the city and relocating in Iraq and North Africa.
“ISIS might quit Raqqa, claiming that it wants to spare the lives of ci­vilians,” a Syrian Army officer who hails from the city said. “However, it will most probably leave behind dormant cells it can use in the fu­ture.”