On October 20, 2017, following a grueling four-month military campaign, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the U.S. and comprising mostly Kurdish troops, declared that they had liberated Al-Raqqa, the main stronghold of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. In the wake of this declaration, U.S. President Donald Trump said that "the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa represents a critical breakthrough in our worldwide campaign to defeat ISIS and its wicked ideology," and added that a new phase would soon begin, in which the U.S. would "support local security forces, de-escalate violence across Syria, and advance the conditions for lasting peace, so that the terrorists cannot return to threaten our collective security again."
This development did not accord with the wishes of the Syrian regime, headed by President Bashar Al-Assad, and its ally Iran. Official regime spokesmen said that the city was now under a new occupation, this time by the U.S. and its proxy, the SDF, and added that Al-Raqqa would only be free when the Syrian army entered it and the Syrian flag flew over it. Syria even claimed that the U.S. had made a deal with ISIS so it would leave the city, and called to dismantle the international coalition fighting ISIS, calling it "dubious and illegitimate" because it is not acting with the consent of the Syrian regime.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's advisor for international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, even threatened a military confrontation with the U.S. troops in Syria, stating that the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies would soon advance towards the eastern bank of the Euphrates river (in northeastern Syria) in order to liberate Al-Raqqa.
The issue of a military confrontation with the U.S. forces, in case they do not leave Syria as part of an agreement, was discussed even more intensively in the Syrian state press. The articles stressed that, once ISIS is defeated, there is no justification for U.S. presence in the country and that its forces must be expelled. They warned that if these forces remain, they may find themselves facing military action or even "bitter battles" with the Syrian army and its allies, Iran and Hizbullah, and perhaps also with Turkish and Russian forces.
It should be noted that, with the exception of Palmyra, the Syrian regime and its allies largely avoided attacking ISIS strongholds in Syria, most of which were located in the east of the country, and preferred to focus their efforts on fighting Jabhat Al-Nusra, under its various names, as well as the Syrian opposition forces. It seems that the regime and its allies left the campaign against ISIS to the international coalition, led by the U.S., and to the local forces that are cooperating with it, in order to achieve two goals: refrain from exhausting their forces in a war with ISIS, which proved to have impressive powers of endurance, and instead cause their rivals in the opposition to exhaust their own forces in a war with this organization. Only recently – after the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and the waning of its power in Syria thanks to the efforts of the international coalition, and after the defeat of the main opposition strongholds in western Syria – did the Syrian regime and its allies turn their efforts to regaining control over eastern Syria.
This report reviews the reactions of the Syrian regime and its allies to the developments in Al-Raqqa.
Al-Raqqa following the expulsion of ISIS (image: alwatannews.net, October 19, 2017)
Syrian Regime Officials: Al-Raqqa Will Only Be Liberated When The Syrian Army Enters It; The 'Dubious And Illegitimate' International Coalition Must Be Dismantled
As stated, the Syrian regime did not welcome the SDF's and the U.S. forces' presence in Al-Raqqa after the defeat of ISIS. Syrian Information Minister Muhammad Tarjaman conceded that "what happened in Al-Raqqa, [namely] the withdrawal of the ISIS terror organization from it, is a good thing," but stressed that "the Syrian forces [must] enter the city, no matter who is there now, whether they are called ISIS or anything else... As far as Damascus is concerned, no city is liberated unless the Syrian army has entered it and the Syrian flag has been raised over it. This is true for every geographical region in Syria... Some are trying to hijack the victory in Al-Raqqa by proposing that Saudi Arabia, the U.S., or someone else should rebuild the city or some other place. That is not the wish of the Syrian state."
A senior source in the Syrian foreign ministry said, in a similar vein, that "Al-Raqqa was and continues to be an occupied city, and will count as liberated only after the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies, who are fighting the ISIS hordes and their ilk, enter it." The source added: "The U.S. and its illegitimate coalition continue to deceive the international community regarding their true intentions in Syria. The claim of the U.S. and its allies, that Al-Raqqa has been liberated from ISIS, is nothing but a lie aimed distracting international public opinion from the crimes that this coalition and its apparatuses have committed in Al-Raqqa province... The international community, and those who purport to protect the lives of the innocent and to defend human rights, know that over 90 percent of the city has been buried under the rubble and that all its services and infrastructures have been destroyed... Tens of thousands of the city's residents have been expelled from the city and from the province villages, and have become refugees in their own land due to the barbaric airstrikes targeting the people of Al-Raqqa and the surrounding villages...
"The U.S. and its allies celebrated what they called the liberation of Al-Raqqa over the bodies of the victims... Had the U.S. and the so-called SDF not concocted a plot together with ISIS, [this organization] wouldn't have left the city and moved to other places to fight the Arab Syrian army, the Iraqi army and Al-Hashd Al-Sha'bi [the Popular Mobilization Forces, PMU]... The fact that the U.S. and its coalition rushed to call for the rebuilding of Al-Raqqa was nothing but [an attempt to] deceive international public opinion, so as to conceal the destruction that they and their proxies have caused in the city... Syria calls to dismantle this dubious and illegitimate coalition, because anyone claiming to fight ISIS must be legitimate and act with the consent of the Syrian state and within the framework of the UN Charter and the resolutions of the UN Security Council regarding the war on terror."
Advisor To Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei: Syrian Forces Will Advance Towards Al-Raqqa
During a recent visit to Lebanon, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's advisor for international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, also threatened a Syrian military move to retake Al-Raqqa: "The Americans, by means of their support for the Zionists, and the Zionists themselves, have always tried to break and destroy the resistance. They have heavily pressured Syria because it is the main ally of the resistance. By situating themselves east of the Euphrates, they are acting to split Syria in two. Just as they did not and will not succeed in Iraq, they will not succeed in Syria either. Very soon, we will see the government and popular forces in Syria advance towards the eastern [bank of the] Euphrates and liberate the city of Al-Raqqa."
Articles In Syrian Press: We Will Not Allow A U.S. Presence In Syria – It Must Be Uprooted, Even By Military Means
Calls for the U.S. forces to withdraw from Syria have been presented forcefully in articles in the Syrian government and regime-affiliated press. These articles have stated that once ISIS is defeated, there is no longer be any justification for U.S. and Turkish forces to remain in Syria, and that their presence there was illegitimate from the outset. Therefore, they said, the Syrian state is authorized to expel them from the country, even by military means. A similar tone was taken with regard to the SDF, which participated in the fighting to defeat ISIS in Al-Raqqa; it was referred to as "the other face of ISIS" that serves the U.S. and is working to divide Syria.
Al-Thawra Columnist: The U.S. Clash with All Pro-Syria Forces On Syrian Soil Could Lead To Global Conflict
In a column in the government daily Al-Thawra, titled "Expelling the American Presence," Munir Al-Moussa called for uprooting the entire American presence in Syria, even by means of resistance: "Our victories in Syria and Iraq had a positive impact on the region, but the American presence is still here, in order to spread chaos, to support and feed the Zionist, Ottoman, and Wahhabi aspirations, and to attempt to establish a territorial presence in Idlib and Al-Raqqa. If the presence of the occupiers is not uprooted by all possible diplomatic means, [or] even by resistance, they will thwart the solution in Syria...
"After the defeat of ISIS, which 'justified' [American involvement in Syria], there is nothing for these forces to do but pack their gear and depart, whether they want to or not, because their presence is illegitimate. Once the pretext of [fighting] ISIS is gone, the U.S. could clash with all Syria's allies on Syrian soil, which could lead to global conflict..."
Al-Moussa's column in Al-Thawra: "Expelling the American Presence"
Al-Watan Columnist: If There Is An Armed Conflict, The American Units May Be Surrounded And Immobilized
Tahsin Al-Halabi, columnist for the Syrian regime-affiliated Al-Watan, called the presence of the American and Turkish forces in northern Syria "illegitimate" and warned that Syria would not allow these forces to remain after the defeat of ISIS: "After the elimination of all ISIS groups in this geographical region [i.e. northeast Syria] there will be a need to bring about a withdrawal of all the military units whose presence will no longer be legitimate – whether they are Turkish, American, or Kurdish units. By virtue of its sovereignty over Syrian soil, the Syrian leadership has the authority to force this withdrawal on all these units... The Trump administration knows well that these American military units deployed [in Syria] in order to support the Syrian Kurds will find it difficult to operate among the forces that are hostile to them, for example, the Syrian army and its allies from Iran and Hizbullah, and also forces such as Turkey, which opposes [U.S.] support for the Syrian Kurds for its own reasons. If there is any armed conflict whatsoever with these American units in this region, they will not be safe, because the threat that they constitute to all these elements, including the Russian units, will prompt [these elements] to close in on the [Americans] and restrict their ability to maneuver... Syria and its allies, who are vanquishing ISIS, will in no way agree to a ceasefire with these American units, nor will they allow them to remain in any way, shape, or form..."
Another Al-Watan Columnist: Washington Has Two Options – Withdrawal Or Maintaining A Risky Military Presence
Muhammad 'Abid, another Al-Watan columnist, wrote: "After the lifting of [ISIS's] siege on the city of Deir Al-Zor, and after then liberating the region between it and the Al-Bukamal region and up to the Iraqi border, we will be able to discern the achievement [of the Syrian regime] on the ground and in the political sphere in all things concerning the occupation of Syrian land by the American forces, [an occupation that is maintained] either directly or by means of the so-called SDF. This achievement will be an inevitable part of the process of the military campaign being waged by the Syrian army and its allies in order to put an end to the presence of the military groups that are not fighting alongside this army. This is in accordance with the determined decision by the Syrian leadership that the transfer of control of Al-Raqqa from ISIS to the SDF, for example, does not mean liberation and restoring it to the bosom of the homeland. How is it possible to think this, when the patron of this dubious process of transferring control is the American occupation?!
"This is a call of defiance that will expose the extent of the ability of the American occupation forces to remain in an environment that opposes their presence. Washington will face a difficult decision: withdrawal in the framework of understandings with the Russian rival, or maintaining a continued presence rife with danger; right now it does not seem that the Trump administration is willing to face [this danger].
"The closer we get to the gates of Al-Raqqa and Idlib, the closer we get to the beginning of the end of the program of aggression against Syria. Then there will be several main options: fierce military battles that will restore Syria's absolute sovereignty over her land, borders, and natural resources, or gradual political solutions that will remove the two occupiers [the U.S. and Turkey], eliminate the elements that are collaborating with them, and establish [Syrian] sovereignty."
Al-Thawra Columnist: Liberating Al-Raqqa And Idlib Will Open The Way From Iran To Iraq And Syria
Several articles clarified Al-Raqqa's importance for the Syrian regime and its allies. Hussein Saqr, columnist for Al-Thawra, wrote: "Today, now that Al-Bukamal has been purged of the pollution of terrorism, and both banks of the Euphrates have been freed from the talons of terrorism, Idlib and Al-Raqqa are preparing for victory and liberation, so that all the paths from Iran to Iraq and Syria will be open."
'Abd Al-Halim Sa'ud, another columnist, wrote that after the developments in Al-Bukamal "that stripped from the hands of the American coalition one of the strongest and most dangerous cards in [its] filthy game... [the Syrian regime and its allies] decided to begin preparations for a discussion on the fate of the Al-Raqqa stronghold, after it was emptied of ISIS in the framework of a deal between America [and ISIS]... and handed over to the other face of ISIS, the so-called SDF, in order to mislead and throw sand in the eyes [of the world]. No one disagrees that one of the most vexing nightmares for the destructive American plan in Syria is what happened in recent months in Deir Al-Zor province, and in other areas, and what could happen in Al-Raqqa province – which is again top priority for Damascus and its allies, in order to block every aspiration for secession on the part of the agents in the SDF militia who have placed themselves at the service of the destructive, aggressive American plan..."
 Reuters.com, October 21, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Syria), October 24, 2017.
 SANA (Syria), October 29, 2017.
 Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 4, 2017.
 The city of Idlib, in western Syria, is the last major stronghold of the Syrian opposition, and is included in the interim de-escalation zone agreements arrived at under Russia's aegis.
 Al-Thawra (Syria), November 12, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Syria) October 29, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Syria), November 2, 2017.
 Al-Thawra (Syria), November 10, 2017.
 Al-Thawra (Syria), November 10, 2017.