American-Backed Syrian Militias Advance on Raqqa


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Kurdish YPG fighters
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The so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group of militias backed by the United States, is spearheading operation Euphrates Anger with the aim of ousting the Islamic State from Raqqa. Yet the campaign comes as the Syrian government has been making strong gains against anti-government forces in the west, and increasingly, the Assad regime looks like it’s here to stay. With the government once again evolving into the dominant force within Syria, the SDF’s campaign may be an effort to secure a stronger negotiating position, rather than more territory, or to prepare for future battles with the government.

SDF forces have captured several ISIS points to the north of Raqqa. Reports from informants on the ground indicate, however, that progress has been slow and no real headway has been made. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, has backed these claims up. Either way, the campaign will put pressure on the already reeling Islamic State, which has seen its territory both in Syria and Iraq curtailed severely.

The Islamic State is expected to fight fiercely to hold Raqqa, perhaps even more so than Mosul in Iraq. Raqqa has long acted as the capital of the Islamic State, and was one of the first major cities to be captured by the group. It remains unclear if ISIS leaders are currently camped out in the city, but regardless Raqqa is an important stronghold for the group. So far, ISIS militants have been setting off car bombs and engaging in gun battles with the slowly advancing SDF.

United States Offering Some Support

The United States has been a reliable supporter of the SDF throughout the civil war in Syria. The group consists primarily of Kurds. In general, Kurdish forces and the United States military have cooperated closely not just in Syria, but also in Iraq. At the moment, despite American assistance, and a desire among Western countries to see Assad removed, it’s unlikely that the SDF will challenge the Assad regime outright.

This is especially true given that the United States is trying to prevent more substantial involvement in the war. Russia and Iran have poured too many resources into propping up Assad. The United States, meanwhile, has only half-halfheartedly supported rebel groups with supplies. Air strikes have largely been limited to Islamic State targets, and America’s program to train rebels was an abject failure.

America and its allies are, however, launching airstrikes against the Islamic State in an effort to cover and support the SDF’s advances. Russia and the Assad regime have long been calling for a focus on the Islamic State, and at least for now, it appears that they will be getting what they want.

Who Are The SDF?

The SDF is distinct from the militias groups trapped in Aleppo and battling government forces elsewhere in western Syria. Indeed, it is believed that Kurdish forces aligned with the SDF actually supported the Syrian government in the assault of Aleppo, and received Russian air support. With the Syrian government gaining strength, hopes of ousting Assad are dwindling, and more than likely, the Kurds recognize that a battle against the regime, its allies, and Russia would be a lost cause.

Most of the rebel groups in western Syria are Sunni Arabs and to a lesser extent Turkmen. The SDF consists primarily of Kurdish forces hailing from the north eastern sections of Syria, although some multi-ethnic coalitions are also part of the group. So far, the SDF and Syrian government have largely avoided outright conflict, although clashes have broken out between the two forces.

Syrian Democratic Forces to Push for Federal Government

The SDF’s assault on Raqqa is likely as much as political ploy as it is a military operation. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Russia has promised the Kurds more autonomy should they support the Assad regime and help bring an end to the civil war. This helps explain Kurdish involvement in efforts to fight mainstream Sunni groups, and now the Islamic State.

The Kurds, for their part, have stated that their goal is not complete independence, but instead a federal system that would grant them more control over their territories. Such a concession would be far more palatable to the Assad regime than outright independence, or the overthrow of the regime itself. With the Syrian rebels in northwestern Syria on the verge of defeat, and the government making advances against rebels in the south, the Kurds likely see the writing on the wall: the Assad regime won’t be defeated any time soon.

Yet if the Kurds can push the Islamic State out of Raqqa, or more likely stabilize them enough to make the push easier for the Syrian government and its allies, it will gain some valuable political capital.

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