Danger Ahead: Russia, US and Turkey in Joint Operation to Retake Raqqa

Peter Korzun

Even before the US-supported coalition led by Iraqi forces set foot in Iraqi Mosul, the plans had been announced to retake Raqqa, the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) caliphate, from the extremist group.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on October 27 that Turkey-backed opposition fighters inside Syria would eventually reach Raqqa after securing the towns of al-Bab and Manbij. According to him, he had discussed the issue with US President Barack Obama. Mr. Erdogan wants the operation to take place without involvement of Syrian Kurdish forces. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurdish fighters, known collectively as the YPG (The People’s Protection Units), as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Kurdish rebel group that has sought autonomy from Turkey. The Turkish government believes the group is a terrorist organization. The US has supported the YPG as the best ground fighting force against IS.

Raqqa has been under control of IS since 2013. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Army have made attempts to liberate the city but failed. The balance of power changed in late August when Turkey launched the operation «Euphrates Shield» in northern Syria. Turkey’s involvement in Syria could be a turning point in the crisis as Ankara is becoming the key player for a ground operation against IS.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter told NBC News on October 26 that the US-backed assault on Raqqa «starts in the next few weeks», in an attempt to squeeze IS by hitting both cities – Mosul and Raqqa – almost simultaneously.

The Secretary said he has a plan a schedule to launch the operation. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the US commander in Iraq and Syria, army said on October 26 the US had «a sense of urgency» behind the imminent move to seize Raqqa because of intelligence indicating a planned attack elsewhere.

According to him, it was «important» to advance «on a pretty short timeline». General Townsend stressed that Kurdish militia fighters would be a part of the ground force used to isolate Raqqa. The US and Turkey still have to reconcile their views on the role of Syrian Kurds.

Gen Joseph L. Votel, the commander of US Central Command, said that it was «extraordinarily important» to keep simultaneous pressure on Mosul and Raqqa, if not with ground forces, as with Mosul, at least with a steady pounding of airstrikes.

He acknowledged there is a problem resulting from hostility between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds – the two forces allied with the US in fighting IS.

Some facts related to the Russia’s role in the Mosul fighting and the planned operation in Raqqa are kept out of Western media spotlight.

It is important to note that Russia is involved in the operation in Mosul. The Iraqi military has asked Russia to share intelligence information on IS activities in combat area. Moscow has agreed to cooperate. In return, Russia will be kept informed about the IS militants fleeing the city. Konstantin Kosachev, the Chairperson of the Council of the Federation Committee on Foreign Affairs, noted the cooperation was a natural thing to do as the parties were fighting the same enemy. Russia has provided Iraq with military aid. The Iraqi army uses Russian helicopters. The joint intelligence information exchange center was established in Baghdad in 2015 to coordinate activities between Russia, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

According to Izvestia, citing an informed source in Russian foreign affairs circles, Russia sees the liberation of Aleppo as the priority mission, but is ready to cooperate with the US during the operation to retake Raqqa. According to Russian Izvestia daily, it is planned to discuss the issue with the US after the November 8 election.

Franz Klintsevich, the First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Committee for Defense and Security, and Vladimir Djarabov, the deputy head of the Federation Committee for Foreign Affairs, have expressed support for the ideas of cooperating with the US if the parties come to terms. Russia is cooperating with Turkey by exchanging intelligence data to facilitate the offensive Operation «Euphrates Shield».

On October 25, after the phone conversation with John Kerry, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, reportedly said that Kerry «expressed his interest in cooperation with Russia in Syria».

The planned offensive against Raqqa is impossible without coordinating activities with Russia. The cooperation is not only possible but imperative. Russia, the US and Turkey are the pivotal actors in the conflict. It is important to let the experts discuss the details to make the corresponding agreements effective. The US has not kept its commitments in accordance with the agreement reached with Russia as it failed to separate the warring factions from the Jabhat al Nusra terrorist group (rebranded Jabhat Fatah al-Sham). The operation to retake Raqqa must be conducted with the consent of the Syria’s government. It is hard to imagine the US and Turkey discussing the issue with the government of Bashar Assad. This task cannot be carried out without Russia – the party perfectly suited to be a moderator.

No doubt that sooner or later Raqqa, as well as other areas of Syria, will be retaken from IS control. The question is what comes next? Who and under what authority will do the governing? The nations involved in the operation will be responsible for the city’s future. The UN will have a role to play. There will have to be an international presence and agreement on what to do next. The efforts to normalize the situation in Raqqa, Aleppo and other urban areas retaken from IS will become part of a larger international problem aggravated by the fact that many actors involved in the conflict have different, even opposite, visions of the country’s future.

Russia, the US and Turkey should be involved in the international effort within the framework of International Syria Support Group. The cooperation during the future battle for Raqqa could become a start of wider process with diplomacy given a chance. Turkey could play a positive role in narrowing the differences between Russia and the United States. The operation to retake Raqqa may also become a disaster with devastating results if the US and Turkey take a unilateral action using only their proxy groups without coordinating their activities with other major actors and ignoring the need to have the consent of Syria’s government.

In this case they will risk clashing with Syrian government forces supported by Russia. This scenario will kill any hope for an international agreement on Syria’s crisis management. The details of the October 25 phone conversations between Russian and US foreign chiefs are not known but the fact they discussed Syria at this very moment, as well as the fact that Russia and Turkey cooperate in Syria, is no doubt a positive development to be welcomed as the time for taking important decisions is approaching.