'US in Syria keeps focus on defeating Islamic State'

How the US navigates a complex war that involves Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Syrian regime, rebels and US Kurdish allies.

A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter takes a position as smoke rises from the al-Mishlab district at Raqqa's southeastern outskirts, Syria June 7, 2017.  (photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)
A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter takes a position as smoke rises from the al-Mishlab district at Raqqa's southeastern outskirts, Syria June 7, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)
It’s 48 degrees (119 F) in Baghdad where members of the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS sit looking over a massive theater of operations spanning Syria and Iraq. On the map the territory ISIS controls is now a series of pockets, like the leftovers of a once-deadly disease now almost cured. The medicine for ISIS has been air strikes combined with coalition partners on the ground. Top on the list of priorities is defeating ISIS in its Syrian capital of Raqqa.
Three weeks ago the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of groups mostly led by Kurdish fighters, began its assault on Raqqa. Every day it is taking parts of the city. According to US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, the SDF took 2 square kilometers from the extremists on Monday. Dillon, who was a company commander during the war in northern Iraq in 2003, says the SDF has been moving quickly, “clearing neighborhood after neighborhood at incredible pace and this last week hit stiff resistance.”
Now Dillon says the SDF has moved into an area where there the ancient city walls of Al-Rafiqa (Raqqa) are located.
Syrian Democratic Forces units moving from the west have also encountered tough resistance.
Victories are measured by streets and buildings, such as a large sugar factory recently liberated.
During the seven-month battle for Mosul in Iraq, the same sort of tough urban fighting slowed the advance.
The SDF has now encircled the city and the coalition says that bridges over the Euphrates are impassable and air strikes are destroying any watercraft used by ISIS.
“So it is difficult for ISIS to escape and get out of Raqqa,” says Dillon. Intelligence estimates say around 2,500 ISIS fighters remain in the city.
“We continue to pick them off or have them surrender in order to defeat them and that is inevitable.”
Daily air strikes focus on suicide vehicles, mortars and ISIS machine guns as well as defensive positions. In the last week around 125 air strikes hit the extremists in Raqqa. The US is also closely involved on the ground in Raqqa. Unlike in Mosul where US tactical assistance was often at the brigade and division level, special operations in Raqqa are deeply embedded with smaller company-sized units.
With slightly over 500 American soldiers involved, the US is committed to closely assisting the SDF so that casualties are low and its limited firepower is most effective. Unlike the Iraqi Army in Mosul, the SDF is short of heavy weapons and armored vehicles.
“We are going at the pace of our partners and they choose and decide and lead the fight against ISIS and we will support them and continue to support them and we won’t set a timeline [for when the city will fall],” says Dillon.
If the US only had to concentrate on fighting ISIS alongside its allies, the story in Syria would be simple. However the civil war is a complex conflict of competing agendas and armies. In the west the Syrian Army of Bashar Assad is marching toward the Raqqa area. Its Russian and Iranian allies are close behind. In mid-June the US shot down a Syrian warplane after it was accused of attacking the SDF.
Meanwhile Turkey, which views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that fights alongside the SDF as terrorists, is angry at the US for supplying weapons to the SDF.
Syrian rebels allied with the US, Jordan, Turkey and others are also vying for control in northern and southern Syria.
On June 27 the US warned that Syria might be planning another chemical weapons attack. If an attack happens the US will likely carry out further air strikes against the Syrian regime. For the coalition all these things are obstacles to the goal of destroying ISIS.
“We can understand and recognize concerns of our ally Turkey,” says Dillon. He notes that the Turks are worried about the weapons given to Kurdish parts of the SDF but adds they have been authorized and distributed “exclusively for the fight in Raqqa.”
He also says that the US has been “transparent and open about what types of weapons and how many we are providing.”
As for the Syrian regime, the concern is that as ISIS loses territory the Assad forces and US partners come closer to each other. “We work the de-confliction with the Russians and we focus on fighting ISIS without the unfortunate mishaps. The pressure is going down [since the warplane was shot down] and is deescalated in the battle space and we are able to focus on our No. 1 mission.”
As for Iran’s and Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, the US officers dealing with the ISIS mission try to work around any “strategic mishaps.” In short, “we have no beef with the [Syrian] regime, Russians or Iranians.”
After Raqqa falls the US message is that its partners in Syria and Iraq must decide on the next ISIS pocket to target.
With rumors swirling that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be dead, the US says there is no concrete evidence to support that claim, but that he should be “concerned about his timeline on this earth.” His caliphate is falling and the coalition estimates that whereas ISIS once relied on 1,500 men a month joining its ranks, it now receives fewer than 100 volunteers a month.