Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters on the move. AFP photo.
In late May and early June there was speculation that both the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), backed by the Russians, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the US-led counter-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition, briefly seemed poised to advance towards ISIS’s Syria stronghold of Raqqa at the same time, possibly sparking what some dubbed a “race for Raqqa.”
However, three weeks into June it was clear there wasn’t going to be a race for Raqqa as forecast. The SDF focused their efforts on besieging ISIS militants in Manbij, in a bid to completely cut off ISIS in Raqqa from Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey.
The SAA on the other hand, in a bid to regain a foothold in Raqqa province, launched an ill-fated offensive against ISIS-held al-Tabqa, 40 miles west of Raqqa city. ISIS rushed in reinforcements to that town and successfully managed to repel the SAA.
The SDF operation in Manbij has proven to be a success after a two-month siege. Already, the SDF intend to continue their advance further west from the Euphrates River, not eastward against Raqqa.
Instead, they hope to continue from Manbij another 50 kilometers down the M4 Highway to Al-Bab. Capturing Al-Bab from ISIS would likely put the SDF in a more advantageous position from which to isolate ISIS militants on the border and relieve pressure on the westernmost Syrian Kurdish canton, Afrin, as well as the Kurdish neighborhood in Aleppo, Sheikh Maqsoud – both of which have been routinely targeted by other Islamist groups, including the former al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Advancing further into Aleppo against these groups come as the Syrian regime earnestly fights to secure that key province and its capital city for itself. While the race for Raqqa hasn’t necessarily been replaced by a race for Aleppo the SDF may well seek to capitalize on the raging battle in that city in order to make advances in parts of that province.
The Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) used the last major regime offensive against Aleppo in February to advance eastward from Afrin against Islamist militants at Menagh Air Base. Similarly today, while the bulk of Islamist groups in Aleppo are focused on combating the regime, the SDF may force ISIS from al-Bab and advance northward from there to cut off the ISIS-held Al-Rai border crossing with Turkey.
They are already soliciting coalition air support for its next offensive. However, the US has been wary about supporting the SDF or YPG in that area given Turkey’s sensitivities about, and opposition to, Kurdish-led forces in that border region. The Americans did manage to convince the Turks to acquiesce to the Manbij operation, promising them that the Arab town would be governed by an Arab council following its liberation. The SDF likely want to exercise the same formula in Al-Bab and beyond, and eventually in Raqqa itself.
Advancing toward Manbij instead of undertaking an immediate large-scale assault on Raqqa was a prudent move on the SDF’s part. Its plan to advance on toward Al-Bab is likely aimed at relieving the pressure on the aforementioned Afrin and Sheikh Maqsoud areas before risking the undertaking of a much tougher offensive against Raqqa.
For now, with the focus on the Aleppo region, ISIS is likely to remain in Raqqa for at least another couple of months. Without ground allies in that region the Americans, and the Russians, will have to remain content with simply bombing suspected weapons depots, vehicles and economic assets belonging to the militants until a ground offensive, more likely than not an SDF one, finally comes to uproot them.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.