Editor’s Note: Monzer Akbik is a Syrian activist advocating for democracy and human rights. He is a former member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a former spokesman in Geneva peace talks and is currently spokesman for Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, or Tayyar Al Ghad. He trained as an engineer in Damascus and now works in the construction industry in the Persian Gulf. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
It seems that the defeat of ISIS in the Syrian city of Raqqa is now inevitable.
Arab, Kurdish and Syrian Christian forces – trained and supported by a US-led coalition – are making steady progress on the ground, liberating large swaths of Syria from terrorists.
A key component of the fight in Raqqa has been the American special forces and the Sunni Arab rebel fighters affiliated with the Syrian Elite Forces, who have received both training and arms from the United States.
The fight to liberate the city has brought Arabs, Kurds and Syrian Christians together under a common cause.
US-led coalition fighters are now deep inside Raqqa, a city that ISIS declared as the capital of its so-called caliphate more than three years ago.
Once the liberation is complete, the forces will then move toward the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. ISIS leadership has long since relocated from Raqqa and moved deeper into the mid and lower Euphrates River Valley. The coming fight against ISIS in that part of Syria will be more complicated than Raqqa.
While previous phases of the war in Syria suggest that the liberating forces will defeat ISIS, this is only a small part of the challenge awaiting the coalition. Some time ago, Bashar al-Assad’s forces – supported by Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah proxy militias on the ground, and Russian air force on the air – realized that ISIS was in retreat, so they moved quickly to grab as much territory as they could: in the north to west of Raqqa; in the middle of the country moving east of Palmyra, toward Al Sukhna – a crossroads town considered a gateway to Deir Ezzor; and in the south along the Jordanian and Iraqi borders in Tanf, blocking the path to Deir Ezzor. It’s obvious that Assad and his allies are eyeing Deir Ezzor.
Assad’s movement did not go unnoticed by the United States: There were at least four incidents in which coalition planes bombed regime armor convoys that were approaching US allies. Only last month, a US warplane shot down a Syrian jet.
Despite this resistance, Assad’s forces are still finding alternative routes and ways to bypass coalition positions, benefiting from the rules of engagement by which the coalition abides: Fire on regime forces for self-defense only.
What does all this mean? If Assad and his allies reach Deir Ezzor and the strategic border town of Abu Kamal before the coalition forces advancing from north, then it’s game over for the coalition. The coalition forces will have to stop wherever they are and allow Assad and the Iranians to take the Abu Kamal border crossing with Iraq.
For a reminder as to why the Assad regime and Iran controlling the Iraqi border will not offer a lasting security solution to the problem of extremism, we only have to look back from the 2005-2010 era, when thousands of foreign fighters and al Qaeda in Iraq recruits flowed across from Abu Kamal into Iraq at the discretion and watchful eye of Assad’s security services.
Assad and Iranian occupation will also come as very bad news to the people of Deir Ezzor. They have been fighting against Assad’s forces since 2011. After liberating their province from the regime, it fell to ISIS.
For many, it would be unpalatable for the city to end up back under Assad’s tyranny – especially in the absence of a political settlement that would put the country on the path of genuine democratic transition.
It would also be a setback to President Donald Trump, who has spoken of his ambition to cut Iran’s claws in the region. A second uprising may lead to renewed war, from which some terrorist group other than ISIS could benefit.
We still don’t know who is going to win the race to Deir Ezzor. However, it might end with a deal between Moscow and Washington in light of the recent agreement over a ceasefire in the southwest, and the latter’s decision to end a covert CIA program supporting moderate rebels opposing the Russian-backed Assad regime.
Still, people in Raqqa are optimistic. They know they are going back to their cities and villages and that the Assad regime is not going to be there. Make no mistake, it’s going to be very difficult to normalize life in Raqqa after the level of destruction the city has suffered. But it is possible, so long as the area is protected from bombing and supported by the international community.
The people of Raqqa are hoping for a gradual move to relative prosperity and creating a model for the rest of Syria to look up to.
Needless to say, in order for this to succeed, international forces need to stick around for some time post-ISIS. If they don’t, hell’s doors will open: Turks could attack from the north, the Assad regime from the west and Iraqi Shia extremist militias from east.
This means the US-led coalition needs to have a strategy that goes beyond just defeating ISIS and forming governance councils. The coalition must create a proper plan for the parts of Syria it liberates from ISIS, complete with a plan to protect the people living there while rebuilding the areas destroyed.
With multiple warring factions in Syria, the scene is complicated. In some areas, ceasefire agreements have been reached. Some kind of partitioning of the country into areas of influence seems now a sensible option as discussions about the post-ISIS future of the country begin.
Such a vision requires a political agreement between these warring factions of Syrians as well as the international and regional players – especially the United States and Russia.
The agreement for Syria’s final status must include guarantees on constitutional principles, the system of governance in the transitional period and detailed plans for the safe return of refugees.
Only a plan such as this can guarantee peace and prevent the ultimate return of terrorism.