No clear US strategy in Syria after Raqqa liberation

As armoured personnel carriers of the victori­ous Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) performed doughnuts amid the rubble of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital, a difficult chapter in Syria’s seven years of carnage closed, just as a more uncertain one began.
US President Donald Trump was keen to take credit for the coalition advance at Raqqa, telling Washing­ton radio station WMAL that the city’s liberation had “to do with the people I put in and it had to do with rules of engagement… I to­tally changed the attitudes of the military.”
Asked why the Islamic State (ISIS) hadn’t been defeated earlier, Trump responded: “Because you didn’t have Trump as your presi­dent.”
Irrespective of celebrations in Washington, as the SDF deals with the fallout of a city reeling from years of ISIS occupation, strate­gists in both the Kurdish resistance and the Pentagon mulled their next steps in a war that appears to have lost direction.
As ISIS falls back to the deserts of Syria or melts into the towns and villages of the countryside, the next move of the US personnel in Syria, beyond the immediate sta­bilisation of reclaimed territory, is unclear.
“The original strategy was to degrade, defeat or destroy ISIS but none of those words was ever clearly defined,” RAND Corpora­tion political analyst Ben Connable said in a telephone interview. “Our new strategy is to annihilate ISIS. It’s not clear what that means. Are they going to kill every member?”
“The real challenge is that there’s never really been a strategy. There’s just been a series of tactical objec­tives dressed up as a strategy.”
Ostensibly, the US mandate in Syria is reliant upon its presence in Iraq, where its intervention was called for by Baghdad to help counter ISIS. Given the United States’ antipathy towards the Syr­ian regime, Damascus was less en­thusiastic about requesting such aid.
The Pentagon sidestepped dip­lomatic niceties by referring to a UN provision allowing for conflict intervention on humanitarian grounds should the host state ap­pear “incapable or unwilling” of countering that threat alone.
From a practical perspective, whether that remains the case af­ter the 2015 intervention of Rus­sia, Iran and Hezbollah in Syria is a moot point. Certainly, following the fall of Raqqa, many of ISIS’s re­maining Syrian strongholds, prin­cipally those along the Euphrates Valley, remain under assault either by the regime, its proxies or their allies.
Despite the Americans’ part in an undeniably symbolic victory at Raqqa, their room to manoeuvre in Syria is shrinking. The regime enjoys a practical hegemony along the country’s west, while the Kurds remain dominant in its north.
The various “deconfliction zones” agreed between Iran, Tur­key and Russia serve to check US ambitions and, barred from entry, restrict American forces’ freedom of movement.
“So, say we take all of the terri­tory, what then?” Connable asked. “What’s our mandate? There’s still no strategy.”
Regime change, once the prin­cipal US policy towards Syria, ap­pears to have fallen by the wayside in the drive to annihilate ISIS. US Defence Secretary James Mattis in April said that a change in the Syr­ian leadership was not a priority for the Trump administration.
In the absence of regime change, however, it appears unlikely that any rapprochement may occur, not least after the United States at­tacked regime positions following the chemical weapons attacks this year.
However, US positions in Iraq are, as before, vulnerable to attack from Syria.
“I think we’re probably going to see a US force along the border for some time,” Connable said. “How that will fit with the regime’s ad­vance along the Euphrates, (which crosses into Iraq) I don’t know but they’re going to want to protect their positions in Iraq.”
However, as the SDF celebrates its hard-won, bloody victory in Raqqa, those questions must seem a long way off. For their American allies, who trained, equipped and advised them through the cam­paign, the dilemma must appear more immediate.
Simon Speakman Cordall
is a section editor with The Arab Weekly.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.