Since the expulsion of ISIS from Raqqa governorate in October 2017, the province has been divided between the Syrian government based in Damascus and the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria based in Qamishli. The Federation governs Raqqa city and all of the countryside north of the Euphrates, as well as Tabqa city to the southwest and Raqqa’s outskirts south of the river. Damascus controls the towns to the east of that and the desert and oilfields in the southern portion of the province.
Russia and the Syrian government in Damascus have used the siege of Raqqa and subsequent devastation of the city’s buildings to criticize the Federation of Northern Syria for killing civilians and governing harshly, despite strong evidence they are guilty of the very same in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and Daraa. Also, Moscow and Damascus have sharply criticized the deal made between ISIS and Federation to evacuate three thousand ISIS fighters and their families from the city to Deir Ezzor, where some ended up fighting Syrian government forces.
As both Moscow and Damascus witness the slow integration of the northern half of the Euphrates river valley into the Federation of Northern Syria and the growing American influence among the tribes and peoples of this area, they are positioning themselves against these forces. They seek to assert Syrian national sovereignty to justify capturing this area. These desires have been expressed by Bashar al-Assad’s vow to liberate “every inch” of Syrian territory from “terrorists”, and Iranian-backed Syrian armed tribes’ wishes to return the city of Raqqa back to the hands of Damascus.
Two days ago, the Syrian government made its first concrete move towards the lofty goal of recapturing Raqqa. The formation of a new armed unit called “Al-Sanadid al-Jazira” (The Brave of Jazira), whose stated goal is to retake Raqqa, marks a significant shift in tone on the part of Damascus. According to Al-Masdar News, the force of 150 fighters is based in the town of Zor Shammar, just a few kilometers from the frontline with Northern Syrian forces, and the unit is composed mostly of fighters from the Shammar tribe. Additionally, the unit is reported to be part of the Syrian Army’s 5th Assault Corps, meaning it is directly controlled by the government rather than being an autonomous unit capable of mounting an insurgency by itself.
Prospects for Success
This new unit, if it seeks to challenge the Federation of Northern Syria’s control in Raqqa governorate, faces a variety of challenges in its mission. First, there are only two surviving bridges to the northern bank of the Euphrates: the Tabqa Dam and the Ba’ath Dam. Both of these objectives are heavily guarded by the Syrian Democratic Forces, and one lies next to a city which would need to be taken first. Any battle to seize solid crossings would last several weeks, and would likely prompt US intervention to stop the Syrian Army’s advance.
If Al-Sanadid Al-Jazira decides to bypass this step, they could cross the river in boats or pontoon floats provided by Russia. This presents the obvious problem of trouble resupplying the assaulting forces, and it would also directly implicate Russia in an attack on US-backed forces. As the incident at Khasham last month has proven, the US has no qualms about crushing any attempt by pro-government forces to attack its main ally in Syria. US aircraft could easily thwart any Sanadid al-Jazira move on Raqqa or its environs.
The True Motive
Due to the overwhelming difficulty of retaking any territory from Northern Syrian forces, it is far more likely that this move is a symbolic one intended to prove a point: regardless of Damascus’ preference, it is willing to fight to retake all of Syria if it chooses to. As such, it can be compared to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ creation and maintenance of the Al-Bab Military Council and the Jarablus Military Council. The SDF has no real hope of seizing these areas from the grip of Turkish control, yet it maintains these formations in an act of diplomatic defiance. In much the same way, the creation of a group towards the unrealistic goal of seizing Raqqa is obviously a more political than military move. It is a defiance of US military presence in Syrian lands.