As of June 6, 2017, the Battle for Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate, has begun. Many of the current trends seem to be focusing on the battle itself, and for good reason; Raqqa is a symbolic city for ISIS, and the last major city they hold. There is also a significant buildup of forces from both sides, with estimates suggesting that there will be a combined force of 50,000 fighters, consisting of 30,000 SDF fighters. ISIS fighters are estimated to be within 3,000-4,000 fighters. Just looking at the number it is easy to deduce the battle will be won, this token ISIS force is simply meant to make it a difficult urban fight that will cause significant civilian casualties in the crossfire, hence causing erosion of trust in the liberating forces.
Yet, this risks forgetting to plan for the aftermath. This operation will have significant implications. First off, as the numerous terror attacks conducted during ISIS’ annual Ramadan offensive has displayed, they’re capabilities to hold territory are limited but their capacity to conduct attacks on foreign soil isn’t, ranging from London to Tehran. Second, Kurdish forces were significantly built up by the United States to conduct this assault, further empowering them and giving them a decisive role in deciding their future along the Syrian border. Third, with ISIS not holding onto significant territory and the rest of fighting most likely going to be in the southern desert, especially around Deir Ezzor, the focus will now most probably turn to the Syrian civil war; what role will American backed SDF play against the Assad regime, or will they prioritize their own goals and objectives?
Addressing the first priority, what will happen now that ISIS has retreated into the deserts around Deir Ezzor? It is hard to imagine the Kurdish forces will push across the Euphrates, as this will further embroil them in desert fighting that may cause significant overstretch. If they lose American support after the fall of Raqqa, they will be vulnerable to Turkish attacks, whether directly over the border or via their FSA proxies around Manbij. Simultaneously, it will bring them within further friction with pro-Assad forces as they seize even more Syrian territory. Some will point to the Taqba Dam operations but this would confuse their motives. The Taqba Dam is an important strategic piece in the battle for Raqqa, as it is one of the few crossings left over the euphrates, hence a point for reinforcements to be transferred to Raqqa. The Dam could also act as a ‘dead mans hand’ switch, as flooding from this dam could cause a humanitarian disaster around Raqqa all the way to Deir Ezzor, hence the importance of seizing the Dam. If this is true and Kurdish forces won’t advance, the fight against ISIS will now likely fall on FSA forces in the South and Loyalist Forces around Palmyra, who are also fighting each other.
This does not touch on their ability to launch attacks globally. The destruction of ISIS locally has not stopped their ability to attack internationally, spanning from Tehran to London to the Philippines. The new evolution of ISIS has demonstrated that their capability to hold territory are being severely challenged, but their ideology has now become a full global phenomenon and is not slowing down. We have shattered the vase but still have to sweep up the glass: the reality is there will be plenty of cuts while doing so, we just need to not overreact to them as we are so prone to do. The battle will transition from kinetic warfare to psychological and social warfare.
An option not touched, but on the table, is what if the SDF now decide to go their own way? They have combatted ISIS and do not see much purpose in pursuing them past the Euphrates: they only risk entangling themselves against the SAA and FSA if they go there. They already have demonstrated significant cooperation with the SAA and Russia, considering the lack of friction between the pockets in Hasakah and Aleppo. They also have to brace for the uncertainty regarding what the PMU’s will do once done in Iraq.
What becomes evident in the aftermath of Raqqa is that the problem isn’t ISIS, but how to deal with these different groups holding territory, or to put it frankly: what is the SDF’s next move now that their utility has hit a critical juncture? Given their precarious position, a hostile Turkey to the North, an FSA group that is actually a Turkish proxy to their west, also dividing them from their Afrin area, an ongoing civil war to their south-west, and a possible flood of Shi’a fighters from Iraq, that it is time for them to shore up their holdings. The Kurdish people’s objective has been their own state for a long time, and now is their opportunity to fight for one. If this objective is still their guiding principle, which it seems to be given the governance and administration of their territory, then fortifying and bracing for Turkish backlash is the most logical move. Now that ISIS is gone, a vacuum has been created; how the spoils are divided is now going to dictate the future of the Middle East.