After Raqa, US mly advised to keep regional realities in mind

WASHINGTON: The militant Islamic State (IS) group’s defeat in Raqa, their de facto Syrian capital, raises a thorny question for the US forces that have been training and arming the victorious local fighters: what comes next?

Since the US began bombing IS in Syria in late 2014 and supporting a predominantly Kurdish ground force, two successive administrations have side-stepped addressing America’s long-term military role in Syria, saying only that the focus is on killing IS militants.

Critics say America is losing leverage in the knotted conflict and has failed to properly engage, opting instead for the simpler narrative of viewing Syria’s violence only through the prism of a counterterrorism operation.

“What we need instead is a comprehensive strategy that takes all regional factors into account,” Senator John McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said this week.

We need “a clear articulation of our interests and the ways and means we intend to secure them. The absence of such a strategy is acutely felt even as we celebrate this important success” in Raqa, he added.

Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, but quickly spiralled into a bitter and complex civil war, with IS just one element in a shifting matrix of players.

About 900 US ground troops, the bulk of them special operations forces, are in northern Syria, where they have provided critical support to a Kurdish and Arab coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The alliance has benefited from weaponry and technical know-how, with US commandos training the locals on how to call in air strikes.

They get constant support from US-led coalition planes and drones, and the Pentagon sent a Marine artillery to help near Raqa, while US forces also expanded a runway for military cargo planes at a northern Syria air base.

Cleaning up the mess

Militarily, the anti-IS fight in Syria is not quite over, with the militants still entrenched in towns and villages along the Euphrates River Valley.

The IS militants have lost nearly all the territory they once controlled in Iraq and Syria, but are also establishing footholds in other countries such as Yemen and Afghanistan.

Towns abandoned by IS are littered with explosives, mines and booby traps.

We’ll “support the stabilisation efforts in Raqa, and other liberated areas, to include the removal of explosives left behind by ISIS, restoring basic services, and supporting local governing bodies,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

President Donald Trump, who has spoken little about Syria or hinted at any sort of broader long-term strategy, faces a situation far different from when Barack Obama commenced military operations in Syria.

Russia joined the conflict in late 2015, quickly tipping it in favour of President Bashar al-Assad, while the influence of Iran and Tehran-backed militias also grew rapidly.

For John Hannah, senior counsellor for the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and former national security advisor to vice president Dick Cheney, Raqa’s recapture is not likely to mark the end of US involvement in Syria.

He said Trump’s tough line on Iran — the president last week refused to certify the Iran nuclear deal — must translate to action to stem Tehran’s influence in Syria.

“If President Trump’s strategy for countering Iran is to have any meaning at all, it must almost certainly include a robust effort to contain and constrict the IRGC’s commanding role in Syria,” Hannah told AFP, using the abbreviation for the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.


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