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This article focuses on the evolution of the balance of forces on the battlefield, notably for the Kurds, mainly in Syria but also in Iraq, one of the multiple layers of interactions that must be considered around the battle of Raqqa against the Islamic State. It is part of a series aiming at deciphering the various factors at work that will shape the outcome of the battle of Raqqa and thus impact the future. Such factors must be considered for scenarios as well as monitored for warning, notably by being included in corresponding mapping.
The offensive against the Islamic State is progressing in the governorate of Raqqa. However, the outcome will not only be a more or less rapid victory against a crucial fiefdom of the Islamic State or an unlikely defeat. The situation is much more complex with many ramifications, which could also impact the unfolding battle, as shown by the 26 April 2017 statement by the spokeswoman of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) who declared “that the group’s forces will withdraw from the operation to capture the Islamic State’s stronghold, Raqqa, if the US doesn’t take concrete action against Turkish airstrikes targeting Kurdish forces in Syria” (KomNews, 26 April 2017).
If we are to foresee what could happen next, we must understand the evolving situation in its complexity.
We shall thus first focus on the twofold significance of Raqqa in the war against the Islamic State. We shall then present Operation Euphrates Wrath to which the Battle of Raqqa belongs. Finally, we shall turn to a first crucial layer of understanding, the larger evolution of the balance of forces on the ground. We shall point out that notably in Syria – and also in Iraq – the Kurds were able to largely improve their strategic situation, which in turn increased the odds to see escalation with Turkey as is happening. We shall look at other factors with next articles.
The twofold significance of Raqqa
Raqqa is located in northern Syria, within the Governorate of Raqqa from a secular Syria’s point of view, within wilayat al-Raqqah from the Islamic State’s perspective (Helene Lavoix, “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Structure and Wilayat“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society 4 May 2015). It is a twofold crucial city in the war against the Islamic State.
First, strategically, Raqqa commands the road to Deir es Zor and from there to the Iraqi battlefield, to the west and south-west, with access towards Homs, Palmyra, Damascus, and to roads which are now cut and must remain so considering their importance, to the north and to Turkey, with all what is implied in terms of licit and illicit exchanges of goods and fighters, and south to the border with Jordan.
We shall note, incidentally, that the fact that the roads to the north and south are cut therefore smothering the exchange lines of the Islamic State, enhances for the Islamic State the potentially vital importance of its position at the tip of the Daraa governorate, between the Golan Heights and the Jordanian border, as shown by the offensive by the Islamic State against the various oppositions forces there started on 20 February 2017 (e.g Syria Direct, “Islamic State affiliate’s surprise offensive pays off as rebels distracted in Daraa city“, 20 Feb 2017; Chris Tomson, “Islamic State takes deadly toll on rebel forces as western Daraa offensive flops“, 15 April 2017, Almasdarnews) … assuming of course that the various positions cutting the exchanges of the Islamic State are not too porous and the smuggling roads across Syria are more or less kept in check.
Meanwhile, Israeli actions in Syria, such as most certainly the airstrike on a “weapons supply hub operated by Lebanese group Hezbollah” near Damascus (see also their potential multiple impacts enhanced.
Second, Raqqa symbolizes the military ascendency of the Islamic State as a new – separated from Al Qaeda – jihadist power and its capability to create and administrate a Khilafah (Matthew Barber, Islamic State Declared in Syria“, Syria Comment, 14 April 2013; Helene Lavoix, series on the Islamic State’s System, The Red (Team) Analysis Society). Indeed, in a nutshell, the Islamic State’s took over of Raqqa back in August 2014, after the city fell to or was liberated by oppositions groups on March 2013, which allowed the Islamic State to assert its influence (e.g. Michael Pizzi and Nuha Shabaan, “ISIS builds power base unchecked, takes over A-Raqqa“, 16 August 2013; “The Raqqa Diaries: life under Isis rule“, The Guardian, 26 Feb 2017). This marked the Islamic State’s success in breaking away from Al-Qaeda, and the beginning of its military and state-building successes.
As a result, recapturing Raqqa will be seen by many as symbolically ending a successful Islamic State and its Khilafah. From the Khilafah’s point of view, the blow will most certainly be cruel, but the symbolism should not be overstated and should be relocated within the world view of the Islamic State, within its symbolical world, as well as within its reality.
Operation Wrath of Euphrates
The battle of Raqqa, or more exactly Operation Wrath of Euphrates to which the battle of Raqqa belongs, against the Islamic State is fought mainly by the Syrian Democratic Forces (Hêzên Sûriya Demokratîk – قوات سوريا الديمقراطية see their Facebook Page, and their press website), a multi-ethnic and religious force, where the Kurdish YPG is numerically preponderant. The SDF was created on 10 Oct 2015 “to unite all democratic forces fighting in Syria… Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs, and Assyrians…” (Official statement, general Command SDF, 30 Nov 2015).
The SDF launched Operation Wrath of Euphrates, a “massive military campaign to liberate the city and its countryside from the Daesh (ISIS) terrorists” on 5 November 2016 (Official statement, General Command of the Democratic Forces of Syria (SDF), Wrath of Euphrates Operations Room – November 6, 2016). It will be with carried out with the SDF and “the active participation of YPG and YPJ, and also with the cooperation of the International Coalition…” (Ibid.).
The International Coalition provides not only aerial support, but the U.S. also sent first “several hundred [American] Special Operations troops” as advisors, followed by 8 March 2017 by Marines providing artillery support (Dan Lamothe and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Marines have arrived in Syria to fire artillery in the fight for Raqqa“, 8 March 2017, The Washington Post). Russia also supported the war effort in Raqqa by bombing Islamic State positions on 17 February 2017 (Ara News, “Russia bombs ISIS positions in Raqqa“, 17 Feb 2017).
On 13 April 2017, the fourth phase of the operation was launched (Official statement, Leadership of the Euphrates Operation Command, 13 April, 2016 – for a chronological detail of previous phases and battles, “Raqqa campaign (2016–present)“, Wikipedia). Its objective is to “clear the remaining northern countryside and the valley of Jalab from the terrorists and to remove the last obstacles in front of us, to prepare for the liberation of the city of Al-Raqqa and the completion of the siege with encirclement of the terrorists…. progress is made on two fronts, east front and western front, Jalab and the northern countryside of the city of Raqqa” (Ibid.).
This last phase, and the battle of Raqqa within it will most probably see hard fighting and be relatively long. Besides pure military strategy, tactic and operations on the local battlefield and the uncertainty which always surrounds battles, it will also depend, as the impact of its outcome and because of this potential impact, on the interactions of many other layers of factors and on various uncertainties, chief among them Turkey’s position and action. It is to these various layers of factors we shall now turn.
The evolution of the overall balance of force on the ground: the victorious Kurds
To find out the larger evolution of the balance of power among the various groups on the ground, let us thus compare over time a selection of six maps, from June 2014 up until 25 April 2017, not only of Syria but also of Iraq. Indeed, considering the nature of the Islamic State, the two countries must be seen together if one wants to understand what is happening (Helene Lavoix, “Beyond the Positivity Mindset, The Islamic State and a Map“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 22 January 2015).
16 June 2014
31 December 2014
When we look at the first two maps above, mid June 2014 then end of December 2014, the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad (in red/light pink – see background assessment up to Feb 2014), the multiple opposition groups (in light green – background assessment for the National Coalition, for the Syrian Sunni Factions, and Jihadis Factions up until Feb 2014) notably in Deir es Zor close to the Iraqi border, and the Kurds (in yellow/yellowish – background assessment up until Feb 2014) in the north, as well as a large part of the shiite-governed Iraq (pink) were all losers to the Islamic State (in black/grey).
24 July 2015
However, by mid-2015 the Kurds through their determination, their capable military fighting, and thus capacity to benefit from foreign support, as well as through their ability to create and set up a state-like organisation, Rojava, in the north-east (as identified in “The Kurds in Syria“,The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 10 Feb 2014), had not only succeeded in containing and pushing back the Islamic State, but also, if we compare with the June 2014 map to de facto largely increase the territory under their control.
They could aim at joining Afrin in the west to the rest of their territory.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State (see for details Portal to the Islamic State War, The Red (Team) Analysis Society), blocked in the north by the Kurds, expanded towards central Syria with Palmyra (Reuters, “Islamic State says it has full control of Syria’s Palmyra“, 21 May 2015), while starting facing set backs in Iraq.
The front line with Iraqi Kurdistan not only held, but Iraqi Kurds could also slightly increase the territory under military influence, without presuming of any change to political arrangements within the Iraqi polity.
The Kurdish expansion and consolidation could only be seen as a rising threat by Turkey (“the Kurds in Syria”, Ibid.; Gallia Lindenstrauss, “Back to Square One? The Collapse of the Peace Process with the Kurds in Turkey“, Strategic Assessment, Volume 18, No. 4, January 2016)..
July 2015 witnessed the final stages of the breaking down of the cease-fire between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well, as more largely the Kurds, notably in Syria, as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and “its” armed forces the People’s Protection Committees (YPG) are linked to the PKK, Kurdish expansion being indeed one out of four factors conducive to this break down (Lindenstrauss, Ibid.).
21 Sept 2015
At the end of the Summer 2015, the Islamic State was also increasingly threatening Damascus. On 30 September 2015, Russia started intervening militarily in Syria, at the request of the Syrian government, and launched an air campaign (Helene Lavoix, “Russia at War with the Islamic State in Syria – Perceptions of Strikes“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 12 October 2015).
7 Sept 2016
One year later, in Iraq, the Islamic State had lost Ramadi (Feb 2016) and Fallujah (May-July 2016), while the battle of Mosul was being prepared. The Kurds had taken over Sinjar and the Sinjar Pass to Syria (Martin Chulov, “‘Tyranny has gone’: Kurds and Yazidis celebrate recapture of Sinjar from Isis“, 13 November 2015, The Guardian).
In Syria, in the south, it was not threatening any more Damascus. It was replaced there mainly by groups from the oppositions. In the north, it had lost even more territory, always to the Kurds. Notably, the SDF and other fighting groups, supported by the International Coalition had progressed towards Manbij. The offensive was started on 31 May 2016, and the city taken on 12 August (for a summary, “Manbij offensive 2016” Wikipedia).
The Kurdish attempt to continue north towards Jarabulus and then west towards Afrin was however stopped by the entrance of Turkey and Turkish supported groups. Turkey, aiming at stopping the Kurdish progression, and accessorily the Islamic State, which held the territory, started the operation Euphrates Shield on 24 August 2016, taking Jarabulus (Cengiz Çandar, “Has Turkey really stepped into ‘Syrian quagmire’?”, August 26, 2016).
25 April 2017
After taking easily Dabiq in October 2016, Turkey and its allied Syrian factions finally took over al-Bab, with Russian air support on 23 February 2017, after a 3.5 months competition for victory against other groups involved in the battle, notably Bashar al-Assad Syrian Army and the Kurds-supported SDF (Cengiz Çandar, “Operation Euphrates Shield: A postmortem“, 5 April 2017, Al Monitor; “Battle of al-Bab“, Wikipedia).
Turkey stated that their objectives were not al-Bad but to take Manbij and then to continue to Raqqa, hopefully thus supplanting the SDF there, while consolidating the separation between Kurdish Afrin and the rest of the territory under Kurdish influence, and starting to shrink that area (Daily Sabah, “Manbij, Raqqa, will be freed from YPG, Daesh terrorists, Erdoğan says“, 2 March 2017; Firat Kozok , Onur Ant, and Selcan Hacaoglu “Turkey Asks U.S. to Force Kurd Fighters to Quit Syrian Town“, Bloomberg, 2 March 2017; Çandar, “… A postmortem” Ibid.). As a result, the Syrian Army of the government of Bashar al-Assad moved swiftly to the east until Lake Assad it reached on 7 March 2017 (Chris Tomson, “Syrian Army reaches Lake Assad for the first time since 2012 amid humiliating ISIS defeat” and “+20 villages liberated as the Syrian Army seizes ISIS pocket in stunning Aleppo offensive”, 7 March 2017, Al Masdar News; Joseph V. Micallef, “The Fall of Raqqa and the Islamic State: What Comes Next?“, 20 March 2017, Military.com). While also pushing south Islamic State forces, Bashar al-Assad Syrian Army thus blocked the Turkish Army and defeated Turkey’s designs. Indeed, it could not be imaginable, for any country, even more so if it is led by a government and state trying to reassert their power in a civil war setting, to see them allowing a foreign country to move freely and at whim on its territory. Turkey’s plans were even more thwarted by the protection given to the Kurds to the west in Afrin by Russia, and to the east around Manbij by the U.S. (Çandar, “… A postmortem” Ibid.).
Turkey declared the end of operation Euphrates Shield on 29 March 2017 (Çandar, “… A postmortem” Ibid.).
Uncertainty over Turkey’s next actions settled. On the one hand, considering the threat it perceives from the regional expansion of the Kurds, it was likely not to abandon the matter. On the other hand, the signals from Russia and the U.S. were clear enough and could encourage them not to decide upon any rash course of action… notably should the overall world context be less polarised.
Meanwhile, from the north and east of the Euphrates, the SDF and the Kurds continued moving south until south of Lake Assad while Operation Wrath of Euphrates started (see above).
As seen, in the southern part of Syria, the Islamic State is still only apparently present at the tip of Daraa, alongside Jordan and the Golan Heights. The opposition groups appeared to have slightly extended their territory to the south-east.
A fragile cease-fire for for Syria, violated with time, between major opposition groups – save the Kurdish YPG, the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) – and the government of Bashar al-Assad, guaranteed initially by Russia and Turkey and later also by Iran, was to be enforced starting 29 December 2016 at midnight (BBC News, “Syria conflict: Ceasefire agreed, backed by Russia and Turkey“, 29 Dec 2016; Anne Barbard and Hwaida Saad “Iran, Russia and Turkey Agree to Enforce Syria Cease-Fire, but Don’t Explain How“, 24 January 2017, The New York Times; Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters, “U.N. Envoy Calls on Powers to Salvage Syrian Ceasefire“, 25 March 2017, USNews).
In Iraq, the battle of Mosul, started on 16 October 2016 and is still ongoing (“Battle of Mosul 2016-present“, Wikipedia). The Kurds, seem, according to the map, to have further extended their territory south to include al-Badi (note that no source other than the map could be found), even though infighting occurred over the Sinjar area (for a background on Kurdish infighting, see “The Kurds in Syria“, ibid., Mahmut Bozarslan, “Who’s fighting whom in Iraq’s Sinjar?“, 9 January 2017, Al Monitor; Dorian Jones, “Clashes Between Rival Iraqi Kurds Fuel Fears of Proxy War” 14 March 2017, VOA).
Then on 2 April 2017, the parties of Kurdistan (The Kurdistan Democratic Party – KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – PUK) and President Masoud Barzani declared “Kurdistan will hold independence referendum in 2017 (Senior Official, Rudaw, 2 April 2017).
Uncertainty on the way Erdogan would react was lifted with Turkish president Erdogan’s announcement on 4 April 2017 of a new operation in Syria and Iraq (Burcu Arik, “Next phase of Euphrates Shield to include Iraq: Erdogan” 4 April 2017, Anadolu Agency; Dorian Jones, “Erdogan Threatens New Military Incursions Targeting PKK“, 6 April 2017, VOA; Hamdi Malik, “Ankara not backing down from Iraq intervention“, 17 April 2017, Al Monitor).
Meanwhile, the YPG official website reported novel attacks on Rojava in Syria everyday save apparently on 6 April between 1 and 11 April 2017 (Turkish-backed gangs shell villages in Shehba; Turkish army and gangs’ attacks continue; April 6: Attacks by the Turkish army and affiliated gangs continue; YPGRojava.org).
Erdogan is now also likely to feel vindicated by winning the referendum on constitutional changes in Turkey towards an increase of Presidential power (BBC News, “Why did Turkey hold a referendum?“, 16 April 2017). We may also surmise that the warm support received following the electoral victory with the referendum by Islamist fighting factions in Syria such as “Ahrar al-Sham, … Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, part of al-Qaeda’s Syria extension Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra); Jaish al-Islam, linked to Saudi Arabia; and the Sultan Murad Brigade” ( could be an encouragement towards action.
On 25 April, Turkey launched air strikes on Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria’s Rojava, hitting 39 positions of the YPG and PKK, killing 20 of their fighters and wounding 18 others, while 5 Peshmergas [Iraqis Kurds fighters] were killed and another 9 wounded (AraNews, “20 Syrian Kurdish fighters killed, 18 injured in Turkish attack: YPG“, 26 April 2017). American and Russian condemnations followed, the Kurds asking for more than words (Laurie Mylroie, “US condemns Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish forces”, 26 April 2017; Reuters, “Russia condemns Turkey’s air strikes on Iraq, Syria, calls it ‘unacceptable’“, 27 April 2017, Indian Express; KomNews, Ibid.). Turkish attacks nonetheless continued (e.g. “Press Release!“, 1 May 2017, YPG Rojava). The American decision to patrol along the Syrian-Turkish border could however change the escalating dynamic (Ken Bredemeier, “Erdogan ‘Seriously Saddened’ US Supporting Syrian Kurdish Fighters“, 30 April 2017, VOA; “SDF: US protection will prevent renewed Turkish attacks on our positions in northern Syria“, 2 May 2017, Ara News).
The uncertainty is now about whether Turkey will go on with escalating actions, how far it will go and the consequences on the other layers of factors.
It is thus first against this backdrop that the battle of Raqqa must be understood, a theatre of operation where the Kurds in Syria have considerably enlarged the territory under their influence, and where the Kurds in Iraq have also progressed. Meanwhile, even though the Islamic State progressively loses territory it is still present in Mesopotamia.
The Kurds so far have been able to construct and capitalise upon their military advantage. We shall turn to other elements of this capitalisation, chief among them state-building in Rojava, as well as to the other layers of interacting factors with next articles.
About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.
Featured image: Photo by YPG Press Office, from “The Fourth Phase of Wrath of Euphrates Has Started“, press release, 13 April 2017, YPGROJAVA.ORG