Who will fill Islamic State vacuum after Raqqa?

Kurdish, Arab fighters open offensive on Syria’s last ISIS stronghold, occupied since 2013.

Islamic State holds a parade in Raqqa in June, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Islamic State holds a parade in Raqqa in June, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a collection of Kurdish and Arab fighters supported by the US, announced the final portion of their offensive to liberate Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State in Syria and its main power base in the country since late 2013.
The victory over ISIS in Syria and the fall of its Iraqi capital of Mosul, is a major turning point in the Middle East after years of brutal war in both countries.
For Israel the question is what comes next in both countries. The US has built a close relationship with the SDF, sending it arms, special forces, Marines and Rangers to support the battle. A US footprint in Syria is a counterbalance to jihadists and the Iranian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. Jerusalem looks favorably upon that. However, in neighboring Iraq the defeat of ISIS has also meant increased influence of the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi or Shi’ite militias, who are moving closer to the Syrian regime forces in Syria.
Israel wonders what comes next.
The battle for Raqqa will take place on both sides of the Euphrates River.
Iraqi security forces shooting at ISIS militants in an alleyway in Mosul , Iraq (SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The city is less than a fifth the size of Mosul, where the Iraqi Army has been fighting for seven months. The battle for Raqqa is expected to take several months or less. Flanked by women and men in fatigues and flags fluttering, SDF spokesman Talal Silo made the announcement in the morning on Tuesday.
“We have launched this operation against ISIS in Raqqa from the north, west and east.” He said the US-led coalition was delivering weapons that would aid the operation. He urged civilians, of whom there are an estimated 200,000, to avoid ISIS positions.
US and coalition air power will likely target ISIS in the city, but the Americans are wary of civilian casualties, which will rise in urban fighting. For the SDF this will be a tough operation, fighting in a cramped area. The SDF lost hundreds of fighters taking Manbij last year, a town much smaller than Raqqa.
If ISIS puts up a fight, the already strained resources of the SDF and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have effectively rolled ISIS back from thousands of square kilometers in the last three years, will be put to the test.
Turkey, which views the YPG as terrorists and part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has threatened that it would retaliate if the operation “presents a threat.” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was clearly warning the US and its SDF allies to tread carefully in coming months. The US has acted in the last year to protect Kurdish forces in Syria from Turkish threats, sending military convoys to Manbij and other areas to warn off Turkey from intervening.
Now with ISIS on the ropes, a move by the Turks or its Syrian rebel allies could destabilize the operation.
The US is also hedging its Syrian policy on the Jordanian border where it works with Syrian rebel groups fighting the Syrian regime. Those Syrian rebels oppose the SDF, which they view as collaborating with the Syrian regime. Defeat of ISIS will bring into stark contrast the competing interests of the regime, Turkey, Iran, the Syrian rebels and US policy.
For Israel, the Syrian civil war has always threatened chaos on the Golan and forced Israel to weigh working with the Syrian rebels against the regime. The SDF, its secular values and role in Syria have common interests with Jerusalem, but it is far away in eastern Syria. That means Israel’s immediate concern after Raqqa is whether the ISIS vacuum will be filled by Iranian-backed Shia militias and Assad, or whether US backed forces, such as the SDF and Syrian rebels will take over ISIS areas. Until Raqqa falls, that final puzzle piece may remain outside the map.