Yesterday, in the aftermath of ISIS-inspired attacks in London and Paris, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces began the long-awaited assault on ISIS’ capital Raqqa. The official statement from coalition forces reads:
The Syrian Democratic Forces and their Syrian Arab Coalition partners launched the offensive to unseat ISIS from its so-called “capital” of Raqqah in northern Syria, June 6. The SAC and SDF began marching on Raqqah in November and have been rapidly tightening the noose around the city since theirdaring air assault behind enemy lines in Coalition aircraft in March to begin the seizure of Tabqah. [….]
Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, Commanding General of CJTF–OIR, said the fight for Raqqah will be long and difficult, but the offensive would deliver a decisive blow to the idea of ISIS as a physical caliphate saying, “It’s hard to convince new recruits that ISIS is a winning cause when they just lost their twin ‘capitals’ in both Iraq and Syria.”
That last part is not so clear. The spike in attacks in the West has coincided with the increased difficulty would-be jihadists face in reaching the caliphate. ISIS, in turn, has encouraged its sympathizers in the West to carry out attacks at home if they can’t reach Syria. Nonetheless, the extirpation of ISIS from its two largest cities, Raqqa and Mosul, is finally within sight, and is certainly a positive development.
The question for Syria and Iraq nonetheless remains: “After ISIS, then what?” A second coalition bombing of Assad regime forces near the U.S. base at al-Tanf points to the difficulty of our position after the common enemy is removed. The coalition statement:
The Coalition destroyed additional pro-Syrian regime forces that advanced inside the well-established de-confliction zone in southern Syria, June 6.
Despite previous warnings, pro-regime forces entered the agreed-upon de-confliction zone with a tank, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, armed technical vehicles and more than 60 soldiers posing a threat to Coalition and partner forces based at the At Tanf Garrison.
We wrote at the time of the first strikes that they we did not expect them to be the last. With the SDF pushing south from Raqqa, U.S.-backed rebels have been pushing north from al-Tanf to secure the Syria-Iraq border area. Regime forces, driving from Palmyra towards what will likely end up being ISIS’ last major city, Deir ez-Zour, have been trying to head them off, thus the repeated drives toward al-Tanf, which lies along the Baghdad-Damascus Highway. Syria, with the support of Iran, would very much like to retake the Iraqi border, creating a contiguous link between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut for the first time since the outbreak of the conflict. Whether or not U.S., Kurdish, and Arab rebel forces prevent that will likely depend on our willingness to stay in Syria after ISIS is removed.