Fo­cus shifts from Mo­sul to Raqqa, heart of the Is­lamic State caliphate

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - MICHAEL R. GOR­DON New York Times News Ser­vice

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.

FELIPE DANA, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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