Six Syrian civilians were killed yesterday by bombs aimed at long haul trucks carrying crude oil north of Raqqa. These were the first confirmed civilian deaths since France began its aerial operation six days ago. In the last few hours, there has been an intensification of Russian and U.S. raids against Raqqa and the city of Deir al-Zour, centering their strikes on vehicles transporting crude oil from Mosul, Iraq, to Raqqa.
Almost overnight, the Iraqi second city has become the new “capital” of the caliphate, as it’s become the home of hundreds of Islamist military leaders fleeing French retaliation in the old stronghold of Raqqa.
The evacuation was accompanied by an ISIS retreat from the areas south of Hasakah, Syria, a Kurdish area north of Raqqa, where a joint operation of the Syrian Army and Russian warplanes pushed the Islamists westward. Moscow has doubled its raids by launching missiles from the Mediterranean Sea, and the French press has reported of rumors within the French Ministry of Defense that it may dispatch special forces on the ground.
Officially, Paris and Moscow have not finalized the details of their military cooperation (presidents Vladimir Putin and François Hollande are to meet Nov. 26). But the joint action could reassure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who considers France responsible for violating Syrian sovereignty, bombing its territory without permission; he may forgive the breach if Hollande coordinates with Moscow.
France is advancing diplomacy and military action on opposite tracks: Hollande, a staunch opponent of Assad, is discussing military operations with Assad’s supporter, Putin. Across the ocean, U.S. President Barack Obama is playing a similar game. He sits at the negotiating table with Moscow and then repeats, again yesterday in Manila, the intransigence of Washington: “I do not see how the civil war will end if Assad remains in power.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov immediately replied that without Assad there cannot be peace.
The central question remains: “In military terms, it is known that the air strikes will not defeat Daesh,” Iraqi journalist Salah al-Nasrawi, an analyst at Al-Ahram newspaper, tells il manifesto. “No war has ever been won by air raids alone, especially asymmetric wars between armies and militias. The coalition can destroy military bases, can kill Islamists, but will not win until it puts its feet on the ground, be it militarily or diplomatically.
“The reason is simple: Without a serious presence, military or diplomatic, you do not send the right message to the Sunni community, which in part supports Daesh with men and money. The only ones on the battlefield are the Shiite forces, Hezbollah and Iran. If they remain alone, if the Vienna Agreement is not realized, the Shiite forces will further alienate the Sunni population, in Syria as in Iraq, in Ramadi, Anbar and Mosul. Without the knowledge that the Sunni component will be integrated into the future political process, Daesh will not lose power. It must resolve in a political victory for the Sunni Iraqis and Syrians, or the Islamic State will start moving on the ground, in local communities, leading to a future of further instability.”
Raqqa and Mosul are similar in that they offer the Islamists a stronghold from which to reorganize and regroup. Residents of Raqqa report that ISIS is constructing tunnels and trenches like the ones the peshmerga encountered in Sinjar. The Kurdish forces found themselves faced with a complex network of underground bunkers equipped with ventilation systems, a high engineering accomplishment.
“Even if the Islamists were to lose Raqqa,” al-Nasrawi concludes, “they will not lose the war. There is Mosul, which will remain as it is because Baghdad is not ready for a counteroffensive. [Iraqi forces would have to] first pass through Ramadi and Anbar, and the peshmerga will not take part. It is a Sunni city, and they couldn’t manage it. ”
Operations in western Iraq are already starting to trickle to a halt. Mosul is not yet in the plans, at least for ground troops. Yesterday the Iraqi Air Force dropped leaflets on the city calling on civilians to move away from ISIS buildings to avoid being hit by possible air strikes. At the same time, the coalition struck the oil truck west of Mosul.
Those who remain in the city are preparing themselves for more intense raids. The United Nations in recent days issued a statement warning about a possible new wave of displaced Sunnis fleeing Mosul if Western air forces decide to move the crosshairs from Raqqa to Mosul.