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What is in the offing for Daesh in Syria?

There is light at the end of the tunnel in the fight against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, but it is not clear how soon the end of the tunnel will be reached.

Russian, Iranian and the Syrian forces are cooperating closely but the US is not fully involved in this cooperation. President Donald Trump has made defiant statements regarding Iran, but he needs Iran in his fight against Daesh — and therefore he will have to soften his attitude.

Russia is game-maker in Syria for two reasons: First, it is now well established in Syria with the most efficient air force. Second, unlike the US and Turkey, Russian military forces operate in Syria upon the invitation of the Syrian authorities.

Trump is on the record saying several times that he wants to cooperate with Russia, rather than clashing with it. He will probably do so without stepping back from the traditional US policy on Ukraine and Crimea. His cooperation with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Kurdish issue is a sign of this.

The fight against Daesh compels the US to be in the same boat as Hezbollah; even if they are far from a practical cooperation,Trump recognizes the importance of the Hezbollah in this battle. After the Syrian crisis, the US and Hezbollah will again find themselves on opposing sides because the latter will definitely continue to work for the “annihilation of the state of Israel.”

A sensitive issue is the role to be played by the coalition-trained Kurdish fighters in the Raqqa operation. The US regards them as the most reliable and capable fighters. They have proven it on several occasions. The sensitivity stems from the sectarian and ethnic dimensions of the fight. Raqqa is inhabited predominantly by Sunni Arabs. They are lukewarm to the presence of the Kurdish fighters in the forces that will besiege Raqqa. If they are allowed to play a role in the administration of Raqqa after defeating Daesh, it is almost certain that Arab tribes will oppose it.

The fight for Raqqa will likely be very harsh, as it is Daesh’s last bastion. When they lose it, they have no other place to go.

Yasar Yakis

On the other hand, it is difficult to ask the Kurds to withdraw from the city after having liberated it from Daesh and suffered losses in terms of lives of the fighters. If they feel that they will not be allowed to reap the advantages of their hardships, they may not be eager to take part in the Raqqa expedition. Turkey proposed the US to carry out the Raqqa operation with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters to be supported by the Turkish Army rather than doing it with the Kurdish fighters. The US remained cool to this offer because of the poor performance of the FSA fighters in the past. 

Daesh’s last bastion

It is difficult to foretell how bloody the fight for Raqqa will be. It may be very harsh because this city will be Daesh’s last bastion. When they lose it, they have no other place to go. However it may also be less harsh because Daesh strategists will understand that this is a hopeless fight. Many fighters who prefer to live may surrender rather than being killed.

The Trump administration needs a success story in Syria. It cannot take the risk of a failure. This is the reason why Trump has established working relations with Russia in the Syrian theater and did not yet burn the boats with Iran despite his declared policy of scrapping the nuclear deal. 

At the beginning, it was thought that Trump’s Syria policy would be shaped according to the course of action he takes with Putin. Now it seems that this process may work in the opposite direction: Instead of Trump-Putin relations shaping their cooperation in Syria, the latter may now shape the overall relationship framework.

Russia prefers to eliminate Daesh fighters of the Northern Caucasus origin on Syrian soil, and not let them go back to the territories of the Russian Federation after Daesh is defeated in Syria.

What is going to happen after the Syrian crisis is not yet on the agenda. It is common knowledge that the US and Russia have different views on this subject. The removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad is not a priority for Russia. It may continue to support Assad until a more Russia-friendly replacement is found.

The US seems to have moved this subject to a backburner, as an issue to pick up after the Syrian democratization process. This divergence in the US-Russia relations does not constitute a controversy at this stage. 

• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.