As events accelerate both within Syria on the battlefield and in the region, this article monitors and analyse these developments. It seeks to answer the question: do the unfolding states of affairs increase, or on the contrary decrease, the likelihood to see an intensification of Turkish escalation against the Syrian Kurds and, de facto, Northern Syria?

We shall look first at the race that is taking place on the Syrian battlefield around the Battle of Raqqa and towards Deir es-Zor, there addressing furthermore the entrance of a new level of Iranian influence. We shall then turn to the evolving crisis around Qatar, pointing out notably impacts on Turkey and how  that crisis and the Battle of Raqqa feed into each other to heighten the risk to see Turkey intensifying its actions against the Syrian Kurds. We shall conclude with estimates regarding potentials for escalation.

This article is part of a series aiming at deciphering the factors at work shaping the various outcomes of the battle of Raqqa and related developments, and impacting the future. Such factors must be considered for scenarios as well as monitored for warning, notably by being included in corresponding mapping (see Online Course – Geopolitical Risk And Crisis Anticipation: Analytical Model). The model and institutions developed by the Kurds in Northern Syria, which condition resilience and survival, started being detailed with The Kurds in Syria – State-Building, New Model and War (Helene Lavoix, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 22 May 2017) and will be continued with forthcoming articles.

Races on the battlefield

The operations against the Islamic State in Syria increasingly incorporate the aspect of a race to take over key positions, as who will rule over what is likely to play an important part in the potential negotiations for peace in Syria. Positions, influence over territory and victoriousness will also shape the kind of peace that will settle, the type of reconstruction that will be implemented, to say nothing of an always possible continuation of fighting.

Raqqa, the Kurds-led SDF and Bashar al-Assad Syrian Army

On the creation of the SDF and the Kurdish-led model of governance for Northern Syria see The Kurds in Syria – State-Building, New Model and War

Around Raqqa, we have, first, the Kurds-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which started its four-phases offensive “Wrath of Euphrates “on 5 November 2016 (see Helene Lavoix, ‘The Battle of Raqqa, the Kurds and Turkey“,  The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 2 May 2017). On 6 June 2017, the SDF, in the name of the Operations Room Wrath of Euphrates Command announced the beginning of the last step of the offensive, the “Great Battle” for the liberation of the city of Raqqa (Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) General Command, Statement, YPG website).

Meanwhile, the Syrian Army of Bashar al-Assad is also rushing from the west towards Raqqa, entering the province and freeing six villages on 6 June (Chris Tomson, “ISIS on its last legs as Syrian Army liberates six villages in rural Raqqa“, 6 June 2017, AMN – Al-Masdar News). The Syrian Army and the SDF are expected to join around al-Tabqa (Ibid.)

Al-Masdar’s update stresses that “the SAA hopes to link up with the non-hostile [my emphasis] Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Considering that Al-Masdar is seen as sympathetic to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, the emphasis on the absence of hostility of the SDF would let us suppose that no fighting is expected to take place between the Syrian Army and the SDF.

From SDF video – Graduation martyr Curran Course of Martyr Diab Camp June 7, 2017

Interestingly, Sputnik published on 8 June 2017 “Kurdish Autonomy in Syria in Question as Raqqa Offensive Gains Momentum“, an article stressing that if Damascus initially “criticized the initiative [to include a liberated Raqqa within the territory under Kurdish-led model]”, while “Moscow and Washington described the decision as premature”, the Kurds nonetheless participated in intra-Syrian talks in Damascus and only withdrew from them because of the intransigence of the “most powerful opposition group”, “the Riyadh-based group”.  Sputnik concluded

“Russia has repeatedly called to involve Kurds in the talks, warning against any behind-the-scenes decision. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that the Kurdish problem should not be ignored and needs to be resolved as soon as possible.”

We may thus estimate that Moscow will, as much as possible, use its influence over Bashar al-Assad not to see fighting erupting between the Syrian Army and the SDF.

We are, however, under the fog of war, which makes a fixed foresight highly contingent and complicated (hence the need for a probabilised foresight). For example, the very length of the Battle of Raqqa is shrouded in uncertainty, notably considering the Islamic State shifting tactics (Patrick Cockburn, “Battle to liberate Raqqa from Isis ‘will be over quicker than Mosul‘”, 6 June 2017, The Independent). The situation thus needs to be monitored as it can easily shift and change.

From Deir ez-Zor to the “Iranian factor”

Besides tensions in the south of Syria with, for example the U.S. bombing an armed group close to the Syrian army, which had penetrated the de-confliction zone near At Tanf (U.S. Central Command, “Coalition statement on actions near At Tanf, Syria“, 6 June 2017), another major area also sees a race – or sometimes “slow march” (Russia Insider, “With ISIS Under Pressure on Every Front, Syrian Army Launches Offensive Against Al-Qaeda“, 5 June 2017)  – taking place, which we shall briefly outline.

The Syrian Army attempts to move northeast to join back Deir es Zor where it fights against the Islamic State (Russia Insider, Ibid.). Meanwhile, the Kurds have also moved from the northwest towards Deir es-Zor as part of their strategy to take back Raqqa (Enab Baladi, “Muthalath Al Badia (The Desert Triangle)” to Spark the Race to Deir ez-Zor, 19 May 2017).

The Deir es-Zor theatre could link with the advance of the Shia Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which have now reached the northern Syrian border in a sweeping advance, as shown on the maps below (Seth J. Frantzman, “Will Iraq’s Shia Militias Give Iran a ‘Road to the Sea’?“, 6 June 2017, The National Interest). This latter move casts further and deeper the shadow of Iranian influence and related power struggles (for example with the U.S. and Gulf States) on an already complex situation. It also connects with the tension mentioned above in the southeast as a “military alliance” supporting Bashar al-Assad now threatens to retaliate against the United States, showing the crucial importance of the border with Iraq for the shia forces, escalating the overall situation (Tom Perry, “Pro-Assad alliance threatens to hit U.S. positions in Syria“,  Reuters, 7June 2017).

Map showing the positions of the various actors on 24 May 2017 (Yellow Kurds, Grey Islamic state, Light Pink Syrian army, Green Syrian Opposition forces, Dark Pink Iraqis forces) by YAGN LONG [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Map showing the positions of the various actors on 9 June 2017 with notably advances of the SDF, of the Syrian Army and of the Iraqi PMUs (Yellow Kurds, Grey Islamic state, Light Pink Syrian army, Green Syrian Opposition forces, Dark Pink Iraqis forces) by BlueHypercane761 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile the entrance of the Iraqi PMU on the Syrian territory also sparks tensions with the SDF and the YPG, witness warnings by the SDF that entrance on the Syrian territory, which actually took place on 2 June, “would lead to undesired tensions” (Ara News, “Iraq’s Shia force enters Syrian territory despite Kurdish warnings“, 3 June 2017). As a result, the Asayish (Kurdish police forces) convened a meeting in Qamishli “to discuss the formation of a defence system in Rojava-Northern Syria ‘to confront the Iranian project’ (Ibid.).

An anxiously determined Turkey in an increasingly tense context

As fighting accelerated on the battlefield, the regional and international tension also heightened.

On 5 June 2017, Turkey had to face first the new diplomatic crisis impacting its ally Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt, followed by Libya’s Tobruk government, Yemen, and The Maldives, then by Mauritius, Mauritania, and The Comoros, decided not only to severe diplomatic ties with Doha but also to impose a sea, land and air blockade on the country, while Jordan then Djibouti downgraded diplomatic ties and Senegal and Chad recalled their ambassadors (Sputnik, “Plot Thickens? Turkish Parliament Approves Deployment of Troops at Qatar Base“, 7 June 2017; “UAE Foreign Minister Slams Qatar for Asking Iran, Turkey for Help“, 9 June 2017). Qatar stands accused to favour terrorist groups, notably “Palestinian Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood” while “Qatar’s recent rapprochement with Shiite Iran” is denounced (Arab News, “Saudi foreign minister: Qatar must end support for Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood“, 6 June 2017; also e.g. 

Qatar Diplomatic Crisis – diplomatic state of affairs on 9 June 2017 – By Wiki.0hlic CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, Amberin Zaman points out not only the direct negative impacts in economic terms of Qatar’s blockade for Turkey, but also the psychological impact, as it heightens the “paranoid mindset in Ankara” (Amberin Zaman, “Ankara’s paranoia spikes as Qatar shunned” 5 June 2017, Al Monitor).

From SDF video: Syria Democratic Forces fighters celebrate and preparing to resume the campaign in raqqa

It is in this context that Turkey faces both the Kurds-led SDF announcement of the launch of the “Great Battle” against Raqqa, while being supported by U.S. airstrikes, their NATO ally also delivering weapons to the SDF (Bethan McKernan, “Turkey condemns US for arming Kurds with weapons ahead of Raqqa assault“, The Independent, 31 May 2017), and the progress of the Syrian Army towards Raqqa, with as possible outcome an entente between the two, as desired by the Kurds.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim immediately reacted, stating that “Turkey was taking the necessary measures on the issue” and would retaliate if the situation presented a danger for Turkey (Reuters, “Turkey will retaliate if Syria’s Raqqa operation presents threat: PM“, 6 June 2017). The intention is clear although it is couched in such broad terms that about anything becomes possible, which makes the overall situation even more highly vulnerable to perceptions. As a result, a “paranoid mindset” in a larger escalating context will heighten the likelihood to see an intensification and escalation of attacks against the Kurds, when, according to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) media office, already more than 80 attacks by Turkey and Turkish-backed groups against “YPG-held areas in Rojava-Northern Syria”, involving the death of 111 Kurdish fighters and civilian casualties took place over May 2017 (Ara News, “At least 111 Kurdish YPG fighters killed in recent attacks by Turkey, Islamists“, 5 June 2017).

Moderating influences on Ankara, however, also exist, notably potentially exercised first by Moscow, as both Turkey and Russia want to fully normalise their bilateral economic relationships considering trade and gas interests, despite differences, notably on Syria (e.g. “Putin, Erdogan Discuss Efforts to Fully Restore Russia-Turkey Economic Ties“, 5 June 2017, Sputnik). We then have, more recently, the apparently positive relationship which seems to be starting between President Erdogan and newly elected French President Macron, despite the issue of the detained French photograph (Ph. R., “Rencontres avec le président turc Erdogan“, 26 May 2017, La Depeche). It is however too early to estimate if the relationship will be strengthened enough to bear weight. Last but not least, the possibility for Turkey to participate in the Chinese New Silk Road initiative may also act as a moderating influence (Daily Sabah, “Turkey, China expected to strike deals to revive ancient Silk Road“, 12 May 2017). Further assessment of the strength of these moderating influence, in the light of factors both endogenous and exogenous to the war against the Islamic State and to the Mesopotamian context and more broadly to the Middle East and North African “region” for each actor would be necessary.

A rising potential for escalation

As a whole, and pending further detailed analysis of the strength of the moderating influences on Turkey, we may thus estimate that the likelihood to see an intensification of Turkish escalation against the Syrian Kurds and, de facto, Northern Syria has risen.

Furthermore, when the major unfolding dynamics in the region are taken together, the potential for an accelerating escalation is clearly at work, with multiple rising tensions and events feeding into each other. As with any escalating pattern, there is, however, no fatality at work but a range of possible scenarios with evolving likelihoods (Helene Lavoix, “How to Analyze Future Security Threats (5): Scenarios and Crises“, The Red (team) Analysis Society, updated 12 April 2017; 13 January 2014). The lowering of tension in one area – for example the end of the blockade of Qatar because the latter bowed, which does not seem to be very likely rapidly – could decrease the overall probability to see escalation taking place. Interestingly though, when multiple escalations occur, it becomes harder – and thus more unlikely – to move towards stabilisation even for one single dynamics, because of the entangled quality of the processes at work and because of the impacts on the perception and behaviour of actors, as shows the case of Turkey .

Within the framework of the fluid recent regional developments and evolution on the battlefield, more than ever, the Kurdish-led ability to offer a sustainable model for Northern Syria existing within Syria without threatening the country’s integrity is crucial. The surrounding heightening tension indeed increases the needs that this model to be strong enough to withstand Turkey’s fear and discontent, while continuing to successfully fight against the Islamic State. Should the Kurdish-led forces and model falter, the offensive against the Islamic State in Syria could not be as successful as currently expected. Meanwhile, as seen, the very strength of the Kurdish-led model may also be perceived in itself as a threat by Turkey participating thus in the overall escalation.

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: YPG Press release “The ‘Great Battle’ for the liberation of Raqqa: Syrian Democratic Forces Statement” –  YPGROJAVA.ORG.