Battle for Raqqah: Syrian civil war mutates
17 Jun 2017 - 1:24
By Can Kasapoglu / via Anadolu Agency
ISTANBUL (AA) - With multiple flashpoints popping up, the Syrian civil war has reached the critical mass to spark a regional chain reaction.
In the north, while the U.S.-led campaign is pushing for Raqqah, the regime is also approaching to the town with its elite offensive units. In the south, critical lines of contact have emerged with escalation risks around al-Tanf and along the Jordanian border.
Furthermore, the mutation of Daesh, as well as the PKK-affiliated PKK/PYD’s ethno-sectarian separatist aspirations and dangerous ideological inclinations, are two additional risk factors.
From a military standpoint, the battle for Raqqah has reached the threshold of close quarters combat.
At this point, there are a few key parameters to monitor. In this regard, close air support (CAS) missions against pop-up targets are critical.
Having a brief glance at the CENTCOM press releases shows that a greater proportion of targeted Daesh elements are composed of tactical units and fighting positions.
Both in doctrine and execution, CAS missions are very sensitive in terms of time, place, and the coordination between air and ground units.
This is because, unlike air interdiction or strike missions, CAS sorties are conducted in narrow battlefields where supported ground units are positioned in very close proximity to the adversary targets.
In light of open-source information, it is known that the U.S. has deployed a battalion-level elite force in Syria, composed of elements from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Army Rangers and Special Operations Forces.
Burden of close air support
Thus, it is probably forward air controllers from these units that coordinate the CAS sorties over Raqqah.
Nevertheless, the U.S. forces might be faced with two important problems in their CAS missions.
Firstly, the threat of advanced man-portable air defense systems -- MANPADS -- in the hands of Daesh makes missions below an altitude of 10,000 feet risky. The urban battle-space of Raqqah makes it even harder.
And secondly, operating jointly with Syrian Democratic Forces elements would bring about coordination hardships. The latter, coupled with Daesh’s systematic use of human shields, is already causing collateral damage problems.
While the battle for Raqqa is unfolding, total annihilation of the terror group in the city does not seem feasible. For one, the southern edge of the city is not besieged, which allows a way out towards the Palmyra direction.
That possibility could provoke the Syrian Arab Army, as well as Russian airpower, for further preventive actions. In fact, the Russian Navy’s recent Kalibr cruise missile strikes from surface and submarine platforms in the Mediterranean probably confirm this forecast.
In addition, lessons learned from Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, as well as anti-Daesh operations in Mosul, all suggest that Daesh will build its Raqqah defense on the war of attrition concept that incorporates subterranean warfare through tunnel complexes, improvised explosive devices, tactical sniper positions and suicide attacks.
Furthermore, the terror network will probably opt for hiding in the local populace and make the post-conflict rebuilding process even harder.
Even more importantly, rapidly depriving Daesh of territory without planning the day-after in terms of preventive counter-terrorism intelligence can pave the ground for a dangerous mutation of the terrorist network.
Such a mutation would bring about an “al-Qaedaization process” for boosting global terrorism, just like a bacteria’s mutation and development of antibiotic resistance.
Put simply, a mutated Daesh in the form of al-Qaeda cannot be “cured” by firepower superiority. In this respect, alarming numbers of foreign terrorist fighters, coupled with rising violent trends in the West’s cities, make the situation more serious.
On a separate note in this respect: eliminating possible returning Daesh terrorist fighters with an al-Qaeda mindset would necessitate strong intelligence cooperation between the NATO allies and NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative partner nations.
In fact, NATO has been striving to overcome intelligence sharing problems with partners for a long time and still has a long way to go.
When Raqqah falls, the way Raqqah will be held and rebuilt after Daesh is even a more important question than military analysis of the ongoing operations.
In this regard, there appears a misconceptualization about the so-called “secular” characteristics of the PKK/PYD among many in the global strategic community.
The PKK/PYD’s secularism looks more like the Soviet Politburo or the Chinese Communist Party, rather than modern Western secular and democratic understanding.
More importantly, its secularism would not translate into economic and political liberalism in the rebuilding of Syria.
Contemporary analyses of the areas that remain under de facto PKK/PYD control suggest that the socio-political structure and economic models are based on communes within a rural Maoist paradigm.
In fact, this is barely a coincidence, because the PKK has built its decades-long terror campaign in Turkey, which claimed thousands of lives, on Mao’s “protracted people’s war” paramilitary theory.
All in all, anyone who expects the emergence of a Western-minded enclave from PKK/PYD-controlled Syrian territory is having a serious delusion.
Neo-maoist worldview of PYD
There will not be anything like a free market economy, individualism, freedom of speech and entrepreneurship flourishing in those areas.
Rather, the PKK/PYD has been manifesting itself in neo-Maoist and neo-Stalinist concepts to establish a communal utopia.
Thus, although the U.S. administration may think that the PKK/PYD makes a good partner in fighting Daesh, once -- and if -- the war against Daesh is over, they will find out that the PKK/PYD’s ideological roots are not compatible with American values.
The U.S.-backed SDF is not the only actor pressing for Raqqah and adjacent areas.
In fact, while the world has been focusing on the main event in Raqqah, Syrian regime units are making their way to Daesh’s self-proclaimed capital.
The regime’s principal offensive unit in the area of operations is the Tiger Forces under the command of one of Assad’s favored generals, Suheil al-Hassan.
Gen. al-Hassan comes from the ranks of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, one of the Baathist regime’s main pillars and so far he has won many battles with his Tiger Forces, usually by employing notoriously brutal methods such as chlorine-filled barrel bombing.
Gen. al-Hassan’s unit first captured Jirah air base well before the U.S.-backed campaign for Raqqah kicked off. Then, by early June, they captured Maskanah, a tactically important town on the way to Raqqah.
At the time of writing, visual evidence suggests that the Tiger Forces, supported by heavy armor, were pushing for the Rusafa junction in west Raqqah.
That puts the regime in proximity to the tactically critical Tabqa air base, currently being controlled by the PKK/PYD. Apparently, Assad ordered the Tiger Forces to advance towards Raqqah as the U.S.-led campaign unfolds.
4th Armored Division Factor
It is assessed that the Baathist regime is pursuing two objectives in doing so: Firstly, by a military buildup of an aggressive unit, the regime plans to put pressure on the U.S.-backed SDF following the possible fall of Raqqah or even to insert itself into the ongoing battle for Raqqah; and secondly, it aims to deny key hydrostrategic advantages of controlling a major reservoir in the Euphrates to its present and future competitors.
In the meanwhile, the situation in the south of Syria also suggests dangerous escalation patterns. The U.S.-led coalition and rebel contingent in al-Tanf came under pro-regime forces’ provocations several times, which ended with preventive U.S. strikes.
Besides, the Baathist regime has recently deployed elements from its elite praetorian 4th Armored Division to the Jordanian border. The 4th Armored is under the shadow of Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother, who is “officially” a brigade commander within the division.
Based on a Soviet doctrinal order of battle, the 4th Armor enjoys the best equipment within the Syrian Arab Army, is responsible for regime security along with the Republican Guard and Air Force Intelligence and also has a strategic missile detachment.
Currently, it is the most combat-capable regime formation. Thus, the 4th Armored Division’s partial deployment to the Jordanian border area, while the tensions around al-Tanf are continuing, might hint at the further emergence of problematic lines of contact.
In summation, the Syrian civil war is entering a new stage both in the north and south. Both situations bring about significant risks of escalation. More importantly, miscalculations by operational-level commanders could contribute to escalatory patterns.
So far, factors like the Baathist regime’s aggression and Daesh’s brutal terrorism have ruined an entire country. Now, the Syrian civil war is gradually moving to the point that could exacerbate its regional spillovers.
Finally, we should note that the wildcard scenario, which could make everything unpredictable, would be either the bombing of the regime’s very own praetorian units, such as the Tiger Forces or the 4th Armored Division by American air power or the bombing of the U.S.-backed rebels in the south by the Russian air power.
If either of these happens, then no think-tank or intelligence analyst could predict what might follow.
The writer is a defense analyst at Istanbul-based think-tank the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy