By Oliviero Reusser
After tensions and uncertainty on social media for several days, it appears that it is now finally clear what exactly has happened in several villages south of Raqqa on the bank of the Euphrates. The confusion was centered on the situation in the village of Ukayrishah and the one just east of it, Dahlah, located around 13 km southeast of Raqqah city.
The village was first captured on the 10th of July by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as part of their ongoing campaign in Raqqah province from ISIS. A video posted on the official youtube channel of the Manbij Military Council (MMC) showed their fighters in the town of Ukayrishah, confirming its capture. The MMC is a military council based in the Syrian city of Manbij, recaptured in 2016 by the SDF from ISIS, and regulary fights as part of the SDF. The oil refinery south of it was also captured by the SDF.
A report published by Grasswire on the 17th of July, based on an interview conducted with a spokesperson for the US-led Global Coalition to counter ISIL, confirmed what many had suspected would happen when the advancing government forces eventually reached the lines of SDF south of Raqqah: the two reached an agreement to "de-conflict" operations on the ground. The deal was facilitated by the communication channel between the United States and Russia, the allies of the SDF and the Syrian government, respectively. The report also mentions that the issue had been discussed weeks in advance, meaning that both sides were interested in avoiding an incident like the shootdown of a Syrian jet in mid-June.
Confusion arose when on the 21st of July, reports were shared on social media that the "Sons of Raqqa", a pro-government tribal militia, led by influential figure Sheikh Turki Abu Hamad, captured the village of Dahlah, located just east of Ukayrishah (as seen above). The capture of this village would mean that the SDF was cut off by government forces, making them unable to advance further against ISIS on the southern side of the Euphrates.
Further confusion ensued when an image was posted on twitter showing members of the aforementioned militia in the village of Ukayrishah, which had been reported to be under SDF control; another picture, showing a Syrian soldier taking a selfie in the village, confirmed the presence of the Syrian army there. The same tweeter also showed a conversation on social media which appeared to confirm that a deal between the SDF and the Syrian Government had indeed taken place.
Thanks to more info which surfaced recently, it is now known that the SDF and the Syrian government did indeed reach an agreement regarding a handover and deal of several villages located on the southern bank of the Euphrates River. On the 20th of July, representatives of the SDF, Russia, the Syrian government and the aforementioned "Sons of Raqqa" group met in Ukayrishah for talks. It was agreed upon that the militia, which is made of locals and IDPs from the area, aswell as several government soldiers, would enter Ukayrishah village and from there on advance eastwards, to capture the villages of Dahlah, Huwayjat Shinan, Zawr Shammar, Abu Hammad and al-Sabkah, before linking up with other government forces again. It is unclear whether the militia will try to capture all of the dozen or so villages from ISIS or whether SDF fighters will also capture some villages there. It is also unknown just what exactly the SDF gains from this agreement. One possible reason could be that local tribes were opposed to them and prefer to be governed by the Syrian government or some sort of possible future local council, made up of members from the tribes of the area.
It appears that the SDF and some of the representatives on the side of the Syrian government do not mind cooperation and coordination, meaning that this is unlikely to be the last time that these two sides work together. A next point of discussion will be how technicalities of the capture of Deir ez-Zor, a city besieged for years by ISIS, are handled: while the Syrian government wants (and probably will) lift the siege, SDF forces are present in the areas north of it and will also want to capture more areas from ISIS there, eventually maybe even reaching the town themselves from the northern side (the government pocket is located mainly in the southern parts of the city).