Analysis: The road to Raqqa

Slowly but surely, ISIS’s empire of terrorism, rape and murder is being liberated.

Islamic State holds a parade in Raqqa in June, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Islamic State holds a parade in Raqqa in June, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On November 6 a group of two women and five men in fatigues announced that the Syrian Democratic Forces was launching an offensive aimed at liberating Raqqa from Islamic State. Some 30,000 men and women would be employed against the Islamist extremists along a front of dozens of kilometers in Syria. It was dubbed Operation Wrath on the Euphrates, after the river flowing through Raqqa.
The attack on Raqqa comes as the Iraqi Army is temporarily bogged down in street fighting in Mosul, ISIS’s other major stronghold in Iraq. The Iraqi Army’s elite Golden Division and 9th Armored Division – with thousands of vehicles, new and modern US-supplied Humvees, US tanks, massive TOS-1 Russian multiple rocket launchers, and close air and artillery support – is having a tough time in Mosul.
The SDF, mostly outfitted with small arms such as AK-47s and an assortment of armored vehicles, many of which it has built itself or captured from the enemy, is seeking to do what it has taken the Iraqis seven months to do. The Iraqis were allied with a force of 200,000 Kurdish Peshmerga who helped push the front line to within 12 km. of Mosul city. So how is a much smaller force of zealous but ill-equipped Syrians going to take Raqqa? The US-led coalition seems to think this all makes sense. The SDF, which is closely connected to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that liberated the Kurdish regions of northeastern Syria, have proved the most effective force against ISIS, liberating some 20,000 from the extremists since 2015.
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was confident of success on Sunday.
“The effort to isolate, and ultimately liberate, Raqqa marks the next step in our coalition campaign plan,” a statement said. Carter was clear on the goal, the fiction of the “caliphate” would be destroyed and ISIS’s ability to attack the US disrupted.
At the same time the SDF was announcing its assault, US Gen. Joseph Dunford met with Turkey Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar in Ankara. “We had an exchange of ideas on driving the PYD/YPG terrorist organization out of Manbij, the latest situation in Raqqa... the mutual fight against Daesh [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria, especially in Al Bab and Raqqa,” the Turkish military said in a statement about the meeting.
The American statement was a bit different. “The coalition and Turkey will work together on the longterm plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa,” said Dunford according to the Defense Department.
“We always knew the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa.”
Of the SDF’s some 30,000 fighters, the statement estimated 12,000 were Arab. So the Americans and Turks are looking for an “Arab and Sunni Arab force” that might included parts of the Free Syrian Army and local resistance in Raqqa.
The picture painted in Ankara is one where the SDF would isolate the ISIS capital and cut off the ability of fighters fleeing Mosul to reach the area. Aided by dozens of US and coalition special forces and air strikes, along with new supplies of anti-tank weapons, the SDF will be effective against ISIS fighters.
The problem is that the Turkish statements very clearly show Turkey wants to move on Manbij, where the SDF lost many fighters taking it earlier this year. Already Turkey and the SDF almost came to blows when Turkey and Syrian rebels poured into Jarabulus in August in Operation Euphrates Shield.
The Americans face the strange prospect of encouraging the SDF on the Raqqa front while trying to discourage Turkey from attacking its own allies on a different sector. From Turkey’s point of view the SDF-YPG connection makes it almost indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, which they view as a terrorist organization.
The Americans would like to find a Turkish role in the Raqqa operation, but the SDF is only 20 km from the ISIS capital, Turkish forces are more than 100 km. away. Syrian regime forces are closer, around 60 km. away.
This is the toxic puzzle that makes the Syrian war so different than Mosul. Whereas Kurds and the Iraqi army were able to work together closely to attack ISIS in Mosul, the groups in Syria have deep antipathy for one another. Quietly, some think the real goal of the SDF is to help the Kurds link their region in the northeast with the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria.
They think the Assad regime supports the SDF attack.
Many supporters of the Syrian Kurds see it a bit differently. They think the Americans are pushing the SDF to attack now before the next administration so as to defeat ISIS entirely by early 2017, without regard to what it might mean for Kurds in the long run.
Slowly but surely, ISIS’s empire of terrorism, rape and murder is being liberated. It is fitting that the plan to subdue it in Raqqa is named after the river that ISIS used to spread itself like a cancer across Syria and Iraq in 2014. The question is whether the numerous forces allied against it can keep from fighting each other in the coming months.