Focus shifts from Mosul to Raqqa, heart of the Islamic State caliphate
Forces backed by the United States have nearly sealed off the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, trying to trap as many as 2,500 hard-core Islamic State militants defending the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate.
The forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, are made up of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters, and they have received crucial support from the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The coalition has already destroyed the two bridges that lead south from Raqqa, which is nestled on the northern bank of the Euphrates River. The coalition also helped the force establish control of two nearby dams.
“And we shoot every boat we find,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the U.S. commander of the coalition force fighting the Islamic State militants. “If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft.”
As Iraqi forces are mopping up the last pockets of Islamic State resistance in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the battle for Raqqa provides the U.S.-led coalition — and the Trump administration — with an opportunity to deliver a blow to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, by capturing its most visible territorial claim to a caliphate.
Still, the Kurdish and Arab fighters trained and equipped by the U.S.-led coalition are just now carrying out the first push in what promises to be a bloody and difficult operation.
Most Islamic State leaders and personnel responsible for administering the caliphate and plotting attacks have evacuated the city. They have relocated to Mayadin, a Syrian town east of Raqqa on the Euphrates River, according to coalition officials who are familiar with intelligence reports.
And Islamic State militants are still defending strongholds in other towns in the Euphrates River valley, which stretches from Deir ezZor in Syria to Rawah in Iraq, as well as the Iraqi towns of Tal Afar and Huwaija.
For now, Raqqa is the focus, and Townsend met on Wednesday near Ayn Issa, Syria, with the commander of the Kurdish and Arab fighters to discuss the next phase of the fight.
Coalition officials said that the city was virtually surrounded, and that the one gap that remained along the river could be easily observed from the air. It is estimated that more than 1,100 militants have been killed in the past month. Of those who remain, almost a third are believed to be foreign fighters recruited by the Islamic State.
About 50,000 civilians also remain in the city, and military officials said the militants plan to use many of them as human shields.
U.S. commanders and leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces have sought to ensure that at least threequarters of their roughly 6,000 fighters in and around Raqqa are Arab. The inclusion of the Syrian Kurds, who are generally regarded as the most battle-hardened fighters, in the offensive has outraged Turkey, a NATO ally whose relations with the United States have become increasingly fraught.
But Townsend acknowledged the importance of the Kurdish fighters in strengthening the Arab forces trying to rout the Islamic State from Raqqa.
“That’s their role: to buttress, to help them do the hard stuff,” he said.
The United States is providing much of the firepower in support of the Arab and Kurdish forces, using artillery, satellite-guided rockets, attack helicopters, armed drones and warplanes.
Fierce resistance is nonetheless expected by militants holed up in a cluster of tall buildings in northern Raqqa, redoubts that provide cover for Islamic State snipers and which will be hard for coalition-backed forces to clear.
“Mosul has got some big buildings, but they are spread out over the city,” Townsend said of the city where Iraqi forces are battling Islamic State militants. “Here there are a cluster of tall, dominant type of buildings. They are hard for any army on the planet.”
One complication for the Raqqa operation, however, has been defused, at least for now. The recently escalating tensions between the United States and Russia over the scope of U.S. and coalition airstrikes over Syria have seemingly eased.
After a U.S. F/A-18 shot down a Syrian SU-22 that was dropping bombs near U.S.-backed fighters two weeks ago, the Russian Defense Ministry warned that it might “target” any U.S. and allied aircraft that flew west of the Euphrates.
Making the Euphrates a boundary for coalition air and ground operations would have interfered with the Raqqa campaign.
Even as Moscow was issuing dire warnings, however, Townsend was speaking with his Russian counterpart, Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, to reach an agreement for a way to separate the Syrian government ground forces, and the Iranian militias that fight with them, from the fighters backed by the U.S.-led coalition.
The line that the two commanders agreed upon runs in an arc from the southern shore of Lake Assad to a small town east of Raqqa. The line establishes a roughly 20-kilometre buffer between Raqqa, where the coalition airstrikes are crucial to the Syrian fighters battling the Islamic State, and the area where Syrian government forces and their Iranian allies are permitted to operate.
An Iraqi girl flees through a destroyed street Sunday in Mosul, Iraq. American-backed forces are tightening their grip on the Syrian city of Raqqa.