Will America and Russia clash over Raqqa?
The ongoing battles for two major Levantine cities led by opposing international powers is ultimately going to play out in Raqqa
The ongoing battles for two major Levantine cities led by opposing international powers is ultimately going to play out in Raqqa. How these two urban battles unfold will not only test international and regional resolve to crush Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) but bring up the potential for a collision course between two opposing sides – United States and Russia.
To be sure, battles for Mosul and Aleppo feature the omnipresent multi-faceted confrontation between extremists, tribal, sectarian and ethnic leaders, and their backers on the one hand and the Iraqi and Syrian state, and their benefactors – against each other in urban operations. This ugly mess is supported by different countries who see the opportunity to reshape the Levant in their own respective, competing visions.
An American-Russian confrontation is likely based on the current trajectory of events. Without a doubt, the US presidential elections result, on November 8, is going to set a new tone in the Levantine urban battles. With a new American administration, policy objectives are going to be reworked and upgraded.
Operation Inherent Resolve will be more assertive in a calculated manner. Regardless of the winner, the next American president will want to put their stamp quickly on the Levantine battlefield; there will be no choice to raise the operational tempo in the Mosul operation after President Obama leaves the presidency.
Moscow’s continued support for Syrian President Bashar Assad aided by Iran and its proxies namely Hezbollah is paying off. This constellation is driving the Kremlin’s current assault on Aleppo which is about to be more aggressive.
With the arrival of Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov; a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, Peter the Great; a destroyer; and anti-submarine ships off the coast of Syria, a volley of missiles is likely to augment the ongoing Russian campaign in SyriaDr. Theodore Karasik
The Aleppo battle is a kinetic nightmare. Last week extremists launched an offensive against government-held western Aleppo, more than a month into an operation by the Syrian army backed by Russia to retake the city’s rebel-held eastern neighborhoods. Syrian regime and Russian air strikes against hospitals, schools, market places, water facilities and bakeries are now commonplace. The humanitarian catastrophe puts America and Russia on a verbal collision course that is already highly visible.
With the arrival of Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov; a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, Peter the Great; a destroyer; and anti-submarine ships off the coast of Syria, a volley of missiles is likely to augment the ongoing Russian campaign in Syria. That potential reality increases the tension between Washington and Moscow.
The Euphrates Shield
Turkey’s Euphrates Shield is forcing Kurdish factions to turn on each other and testing alliances drawing very vocal complaints from Baghdad. Ankara feels emboldened enough to directly challenge the integrity of the Iraqi state as we know it. Speaking in the city of Bursa on October 23, President Recep Erdogan claimed that Mosul historically belongs to Turkey. Erdogan’s statements regarding the creating a new Ottoman Empire to include Northern Iraq is not going away.
“Turkey will take unilateral action if necessary which bodes ill for the future of Mosul and Iraq based on the Kurdish issue. There could be bloody confrontations,” according to a Jordanian security official. It is clear that Turkey knows it is playing a major role now between America and Russia and seeks to exploit the While House-Kremlin clash to forever kill a Kurdish national project.
Gulf Arab states, notably, Saudi Arabia, are flying out of Incirlik Airbase conducting sorties. Arab Coalition spokesman Major General Ahmed Al-Assiri stated that the Kingdom is ready to deploy its own forces in support of the coming Raqqa operations most likely via Turkey now that the two countries are aligned.
Russia knows that the US is facing pressure from Ankara over the July 2015 military coup attempt. Kremlin sees that Turkey’s moves can complicate America’s operations. This piece of the puzzle is still in play as Raqqa plans for all sides become clearer.
Finally, the Shiite arc across the Levant appears to be nearing completion with Iran “capturing” Lebanon with Michel Aoun’s presidency. A GCC official lamented that “Saudi Arabia just lost Lebanon.” America also loses in Lebanon given that Washington is one of the main suppliers to the Lebanese Armed Forces.
These facts give a strategic and tactical victory to Tehran despite the US promises of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) tempering the Islamic Republic’s occupation of Arab lands. The “Iranian win” in Lebanon gives Russia another forward “step” in the Levant.
A US-Russian flashpoint
The two opposing approaches to Mosul and Aleppo are illustrative of opposing military doctrine and the use of kinetics. While the US-led forces are using airpower to augment small ground forces to assault Mosul, Russian forces are using a combination of massive air power and ground proxies to crush urban resistance. There will be a race to Raqqa for the claim of victory over ISIS.
The Russians see that Mosul will take the Americans and their allies time. Now Turkey wants the US to delay the Raqqa offensive until early next year so Turkey and Arab partners, and not Kurds, can spearhead the attack. Thus, Moscow is seeking to speed up Aleppo operation in order to take the lead on the road to Raqqa. Who claims victory over ISIS in Raqqa first will impact regional perceptions tremendously.
Overall, the next US administration is going to be challenged by Russia’s next moves in Syria against ISIS specifically in Raqqa. Although US Defense Secretary Ash Carter stated that the US-backed assault on Raqqa “starts in the next few weeks” there is likely to be delays because of many factors, especially the aftermath of the US presidential election, which is likely to impact the organizing, training, equipping of a Turk-Arab force on the ground supported by US-allied airpower. Russia and its allies may already be in the Raqqa theater.
America and Russia are heading to loggerheads on Raqqa, an unnecessary flash point that will help, rather than degrade and destroy, ISIS, and help the extremists to survive longer in the Levant.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik