In battle for Raqqa, cool heads must prevail
Several world powers, with differing agendas, are seeking to retake the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria, thereby risking a much wider conflict
There is no bigger prize in the fight against the Islamic State than Raqqa in Syria, the capital of the militant group’s self-declared caliphate. While the battle to push the extremist group from Mosul, its Iraqi base, is in the final stages, the fall of the Syrian city would be of far greater symbolic significance. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers and the United States and its allies are therefore in a race for its capture. The push is so heated that there are risks that the sporadic clashes between the sides could spiral out of control, sparking a conflict even more worrying than the devastating six-year civil war.
Russia rebuked the US last week for shooting down a Syrian bomber claimed by Washington to be targeting positions of American-allied Arab and Kurd fighters. The US has also admitted bringing down several drones in the battle zone. Moscow warned its military would fire on planes of the US-led coalition if they violated operational airspace and terminated a joint hotline set up to prevent misunderstandings between the military rivals. Iran also fired seven cruise missiles at IS positions in eastern Syria in retaliation for recent terror attacks in Tehran.
Raqqa’s fall would be proof of the resolve of the world’s leaders to defeat terrorism and extremism. Valuable information about the workings of IS could be gleaned from captured Islamists and recovered documents. Assad’s bid to end the war would be a step closer and more Syrian territory clawed back. But there are also major strategic and geopolitical gains being fought for by Russia, Iran and the US, which are seeking to extend their influence in the Middle East.
The US wants Assad removed and has been arming rebel groups to attain that aim. Russia and Iran oppose such moves and have given Assad their backing, in Moscow’s case by providing air power and for Tehran, through supporting pro-government fighters. US President Donald Trump has taken a markedly more interventionist approach towards Syria than his predecessor, as shown in April when he ordered the firing of missiles on a Syrian air base from which a chemical weapons attack is claimed to have come. The US’ military presence in Syria has been rapidly increased.
Rising tensions have prompted Australia to suspend its Syrian air missions. But Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have shown no such caution. With ever-more military activity around Raqqa, the risks of a miscalculation or accident that leads to a confrontation between the US and its opponents is growing. The first power to take the city would claim a campaign success, although IS would still remain as much a global terror threat. A dangerous situation has arisen and cool heads are needed on all sides.