By Finian Cunningham
With typical fanfare, Western news media announced the launch this week of a US-backed offensive to retake the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State (Daesh) terror group.
Officially, the US is providing air support, as well as “assisting and training” by special forces to the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are spearheading the offensive on the Daesh stronghold. The SDF comprise about 30,000 local fighters, 20,000 of whom are Kurdish and the rest Sunni Arab militants.
It is also reported that British and French warplanes are involved in the US-led coalition operation to take Raqqa.
The fact that American, British and French air strikes are being carried out means that more than likely there are special forces from all three countries actively on the ground in eastern Syria. Such close placement of troops on the frontline is an essential part of air strike campaigns in order to act as reconnaissance and targeting guides.
The upshot is that special forces from these NATO members are not merely in a background capacity of “assisting and training” of Syrian militias, as officially claimed.
A fourth NATO member, Turkey, is also involved militarily. Two months ago, it was officially reported that US special forces were actively liaising on the ground with Turkish counterparts in carrying out their offensive further north in Syria around the border town of Jarablus.
Stepping back for a moment from the sound and fury of war, it should be noted that the situation in Syria presents an extraordinary development. Military forces from four foreign powers – all of them NATO members – are in all likelihood carrying out ground operations in Syria, yet without any legal mandate for their being there. Unlike, it should be said, Russian, Iranian and Lebanese forces who have responded to formal requests for support from the Syrian government.
US, British, French and Turkish warplanes have also been bombing Syrian territory since September 2014 – again with no legal mandate, which makes their combined operations a gross violation of international law, as both the Syrian and Russian governments have repeatedly pointed out.
In any case, what is the US-led offensive on Raqqa really about? Just like claims about air strikes to “defeat” Daesh and other al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist, we need to take Washington and its allies’ rhetoric with a large degree of skepticism.
The evident forward-positioning of special forces suggests a role much more invasive than merely advisory to “anti-terror”militia.
Also, the logistics of the Raqqa offensive raise important questions. This week Pentagon chief Ashton Carter finalized tactics for taking Raqqa with Turkish counterparts. Carter reportedly assured the Turks that the Kurdish militia would not be involved in entering the mainly Arab city. The Kurds, whom Ankara considers terrorists, would be confined to ring-fencing Raqqa’s outskirts while the task of entering the city would be left to the Sunni Arab component of the SDF.
While the Kurdish forces are proven combatants against Daesh and its related Jabhat al Nusra brigades, the Sunni Arab fighters of the SDF are a relatively unknown quantity. It is not clear if they are any different from so-called Free Syrian Army units whom the US and Turkey have collaborated with in occupying northern Syrian territory around Jarablus and Azaz since August this year. The US and Turkish-backed forces in northern Syria are said to have been “cleansing” the area of Daesh. But there are reliable reports from local sources that the occupying militants under US and Turkish aegis are no different from the displaced jihadis in terms of espousing a brutish Wahhabi ideology.
So, with the bona fide anti-terror Kurdish militants kept out of Raqqa it then posits serious doubt over the operational objectives of the Arab militias and presumably their accompanying NATO special forces.
Just as with the US-backed offensive on Daesh-held Mosul in neighboring Iraq, which began on October 17, there is negligible information being provided by the Americans as to what is actually happening there.
The timing of the Mosul and Raqqa operations are key to understanding an ulterior agenda for Washington and its allies. Both locations are related to the ongoing successful liberation of Syria’s second city of Aleppo further to the west by Russian-backed Syrian forces from the grip of jihadis.
Mosul, Raqqa and Aleppo constitute an arc of the jihadi caliphate declared in 2014, straddling both countries. This caliphate run by al Qaeda-linked terrorists under various names underpins the proxy army covertly used by Washington and its allies for regime change against the Syrian government of President Bashar al Assad. This was confirmed by former US intelligence chief Lt General Michael Flynn (who later became an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump.)
Since the Syrian army launched its offensive to liberate east Aleppo from jihadis in July this year, the operation has made relatively rapid progress towards fully recapturing the city, due in large part to Russian air support. When military operations resume after the current humanitarian pause declared unilaterally by Syria and Russia, it is a fair expectation that the remaining 8,000 or so insurgents will be routed over the next few months. A victory for the Syrian army and its Russian ally in Aleppo would be a massive breakthrough towards winning the entire war against the Western-backed jihadi army.
This would explain why only weeks after the Aleppo offensive was launched that Turkish and American forces embarked on what can only be described as an invasion of northern Syria west of the Euphrates. As noted above, US and Turk claims of “cleansing” the territory from Daesh are opaque.
From the outset of occupying Syrian territory, Turkish and US military leaders have been hammering out plans to capture Mosul and Raqqa in a coordinated offensive.
For weeks now, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has beencajoling Washington to hurry up the operation to take Raqqa as an integral part of the battle for Mosul.
The notion promulgated by the Western media that US and its NATO allies are “liberating” both Mosul and Raqqa from terrorists doesn’t stand up to reality. How could it be when the US and allies have worked covertly to enable the terrorists form a proxy army for regime change in Syria? The idea that the terror sponsors are now liquidating their assets is illogical.
More plausibly, what is going on is this: the US and the other regime-change protagonists realized that the Russian-backed anti-terror operation in Aleppo was threatening to inflict a strategic defeat.
What the regime-changers needed to do, therefore, as a matter of urgency, was to pre-empt a successful similar offensive by the Syrian army and Russia being directed on Raqqa once Aleppo was liberated.
The coordinated NATO operations in Mosul and Raqqa are thus more accurately assessed as a desperate rearguard maneuver to try to shore up the Western-backed jihadi army in Syria – under the hoary old guise of “fighting terror” of course.
Only in a cynical sense can it be said to be a “liberation”. Liberation, that is, of terrorist proxies from imminent defeat by Russian-backed Syrian forces.