Will Assad Retake Raqqa and Is It a Good Idea?
Mon, February 15, 2016
Reelection posters for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (Photo: © Reuters)
Syrian dictator Bashad Assad's army has turned around its situation with help from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias to the point where there is talk of an offensive against Raqqa, the "capitol" of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). But a party is premature and comes with major risks.
We must first be aware of the game being played by Assad and his Iranian backers and why that makes it less likely that the Syrian army will engage in a bloody battle for Raqqa. The Syrian regime wants the Islamic State to succeed—or perhaps a better word is need. The author wrote about Assad's strategy of making Islamist extremists the face of his opposition as far back as 2009, three years before the civil war began. Assad's strategy hasn't changed.
Iran and Assad have supported Al-Qaeda for years in order to present themselves as necessary evils and the ones whose feet must be kissed by the West. The Islamic State is being used in the same way, with the Assad regime even funding ISIS by buying its oil. The reason that the vast majority of Russian and Syrian firepower is focused on rebels other than ISIS and Al-Qaeda is because they want to preserve Assad's trump card. It is in their interest for ISIS to be the last remaining opposition force.
Assad also benefits from the refugee crisis partially caused by ISIS because it changes the demographics in his regime's favor by reducing the Sunni population. An added benefit is that it raises pressure on the international community to choose accepting his rule over the prolonging of the civil war.
Anonymous Syrian military sources are talking about recapturing the Taqba Air Base, which is in the direction of Raqqa. It makes sense for Assad's forces to continue forward to retake the facility. It makes less sense to overextend its already-overextended forces by continuing to move east for a costly battle over Raqqa. There are still areas in the south, the center between Homs and Hama, and the northwest that Assad needs to consolidate control over.
Secondly, the entry of Assad and his radical Shiite allies into the area of Raqqa could "activate" millions of Islamic State supporters who have yet to pick up guns.
A summary of polls last year found that ISIS is only supported by about 5.8% of the population on average per Arab country, based on numbers from 11 of the 22 Arab states. The result is a minimum of 21 million supporters. If you only go by the numbers from the 11 countries surveyed, you get about 8 million. No matter how you look at it, ISIS has huge growth potential with millions of supporters who have yet to be triggered into acting upon their beliefs.
If Assad and his radical Shiite allies go after Raqqa, it will be assumed that Assad intends to now defeat ISIS, which means seizing the northwestern part of the caliphate where Dabiq is located. As Clarion Project has explained from the beginning, Dabiq is the most important geographic location in ISIS' apocalyptic vision based on Islamic prophecy.
ISIS' latest issue of its English-language magazines (tellingly named Dabiq) makes the case that the Antichrist will lead an Iranian Shiite army into battle against the Mahdi, the closest equivalent to a "messiah" in Islam. For ISIS supporters, an offensive by Assad and Iran towards Raqqa and Dabiq will undoubtedly look like prophecy unfolding and they will want in on the action. This prophecy includes war with Turkey around the area of Dabiq, so talk of a Turkish-Saudi ground offensive reinforces that conviction.
We must also remember that Assad's dependency upon Iran makes him little more than a press secretary for the Iranian regime at this point, one whose Western appearance and supposedly "secular" orientation is very useful. Aside from expanding the radical Shiite crescent, there is a symbiotic relationship where Iranian influence leads to radical Sunni influence to counter it.
Finally, ISIS has been able to flourish because of the civil war in Syria. Assad's taking of Raqqa or even crushing the ISIS caliphate in Syria will not change that. ISIS terrorists will fight on or defect to Al-Qaeda. The pressure will force the rebels to consolidate into an Islamist-dominated coalition regardless of ideological division, as foretold recent testimony from the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
If you're cheering Assad's retaking of Raqqa, you're cheering Iran's retaking of Raqqa. We can celebrate ISIS losing Raqqa if (again, if) that happens, but you shouldn't celebrate the hands it is falling into.