Why It Matters

Syria's civil war set to intensify

Victory often turns into ultimate defeat in the Middle East, and that may well be the story of Raqqa, the latest Syrian city to be liberated from the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organisation.

This is a major blow against international terrorism. ISIS has been finally defeated, and is now reduced to the role of a marginal if not irrelevant Middle Eastern player.

But that will count for little when it comes to restoring any stability in the region. The victors in Raqqa are a mixed force of Arabs and ethnic Kurds dominated by the YPG, the disciplined and experienced Syrian Kurdish fighters' organisation linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party in neighbouring Turkey, a movement which is itself regarded as a terrorist organisation.

Turkey will not tolerate for long the YPG's success, mainly because it fears this would lead to trouble within Turkey itself. Turkey's armed forces already operate inside Syrian territory, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening a full-scale invasion unless the Kurds are pushed back.

And Syria's own Sunni Arabs are also not happy with the presence of Kurdish fighters inside Raqqa, the heartland of Sunni Syria. Kicking out ISIS kept all these disputes in abeyance. Now that this task is over, the real fight between Kurds, Arabs and Turks will intensify. And the United States, which provided logistical and intelligence help to the siege of Raqqa, faces an even bigger quandary.

US security planners would dearly like Syria's Kurds to turn now against the militias inside Syria that owe their allegiance to Iran, in order to reduce Iran's baleful influence. But quite apart from the fact that this may be too late as Iran is well ensconced in Syria, there is also the question of Turkey's opposition to any such move.

One conclusion is, sadly, certain: Raqqa's fall only means Syria's civil war changes tack and intensifies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'Syria's civil war set to intensify'. Print Edition | Subscribe