What is behind the Syrian regime’s push south-west of Raqqa?

August 20, 2017

Long-term objectives. A member of the Syrian pro-government forces stands next to a Syrian flag looking out over Wadi Shatnat al-Mityhah in the village of Saeed al-Dakr on the western outskirts of Raqqa province. (AFP)

For the last four months, forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad have been advancing in the region south-west of Raqqa governorate, where the United States is supporting Syrian Kurdish forces to capture the governorate’s capital city from the Islamic State (ISIS).

In those advances, regime forces are noticeably backed by Iranian-funded militias on the ground and by Russian jets in the air. In June and July, regime forces captured from ISIS the historic city of Resafa and oil and gas fields in the area. The regime also regained control over south-western parts of the strategic Ithriya-Raqqa Highway, which connects central Syria with northern Raqqa, that the regime lost control of in June 2016 to ISIS.

Regime troops started the operation in the southern Raqqa region from two sides: Kuweires Military Airbase in Aleppo governorate from the west and Homs governorate from the south. An unidentified regime military officer told Russia’s Sputnik news agency that its forces were 10km from the Euphrates River and 30km from Raqqa city.

By moving this way and by increasing presence and control of terrain in the area, the regime is seemingly looking at achieving two long-term objectives: Opening a corridor towards the east and Deir ez-Zor governorate, where almost every player in the Syrian war is anticipating an epic battle; and staking out a possibility of gaining governance or services administration role in post-ISIS Raqqa.

The Assad regime’s incursion in south-western and southern Raqqa allows it to establish a consolidated control crescent in central Syria, on the administrative boundaries between Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa. The regime is expected to expand its geographical control to include Deir ez-Zor.

The Assad regime intends to gain access to more oil and gas fields of the governorate and to reclaim control of major parts of the Syria-Iraq border, which would secure its ally Tehran a strategic land route towards the Mediterranean. It would provide Damascus and its allies favourable leverage in political outcomes in a future settlement to the Syria war.

The importance of Deir ez-Zor has been evidenced by the will of Iranian-backed militias to risk confrontation with the United States in multiple front lines in eastern Syria and by Tehran’s recent unprecedented firing of seven cruise missiles into Deir ez-Zor in June.

As for Raqqa, the Assad regime likely seeks to reassert authority in areas controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Both Iran and Russia, Assad’s patrons, have an interest in enlarging their influence near Raqqa, aiming at taking advantage of the territorial disintegration of ISIS.

Since the regime started its deployment towards south-western Raqqa, clashes erupted between the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Assad forces. A US warplane shot down a Syrian Army SU-22 jet in the southern Raqqa countryside in June after the latter bombed areas near US-backed forces. This led to an escalation between the United States and Russia and Moscow decided it would treat any US-led coalition plane or drone flying west of the Euphrates as a “target.”

The Assad regime’s goal, however, is to regain full control of Syrian territory. While this is unlikely at any point soon, the regime wants to project power in areas ISIS is losing. As the United States has yet to articulate a comprehensive plan for governance in Raqqa post-ISIS, the Assad regime seems to desire a role in administering the city, given that Kurdish forces would not be able to govern the city on their own and that the regime and the Kurds have, to some extent, an experience of precarious coexistence in Hasakah and Qamishli.

The relationship between the regime and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which rules Kurdish-held northern Syria, is clear pragmatism. The Assad regime, as it moves near Raqqa, may offer concessions to the PYD in exchange to expand its administration to Raqqa. It is worth noting that the PYD has no stated interest in controlling Raqqa, given that the city is out of the Kurds’ historic territory and an Arab majority is inhabiting the area.

While the United States may not be in favour of Assad — and thus Iran and Russia — taking control in Raqqa, it could be interested in some minor role for the regime in governing the city, one that would likely focus on state institutions providing services such as electricity, water and telecommunications.

The Assad regime, shortly after the capture of Resafa, accompanied the military operation in the area with a “humanitarian operation” in which it established state services to support people fleeing Raqqa city. The regime’s governor of Raqqa, Abd Khalid al-Hamoud, moved to Resafa to lead that operation.

The Assad administration is capitalising on ISIS’s losses near Raqqa with objectives that would serve its international backers. The vagueness and uncertainty that illustrate US policy in Syria seem an encouragement to the Assad regime, Russia and Iran to pursue their agendas. It remains to be seen whether the United States would seek options to halt the regime’s advances towards Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.