Forces split over Raqqa strat­egy

Dis­pute be­tween U.S. al­lies com­pli­cates ef­fort to weaken Daesh strong­hold in Syria

Toronto Star - - NEWS - SUZAN FRASER AND SARAH EL DEEB THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ANKARA, TURKEY— Turkey said Tues­day that the U.S.-backed and Kur­dish-led forces lead­ing an as­sault on the Daesh strong­hold of Raqqa should not en­ter the city it­self but merely help encircle it — a sug­ges­tion dis­missed by the Kurds.

The dis­pute be­tween the two U.S. al­lies threat­ens to com­pli­cate ef­forts to drive Daesh out of Raqqa, the de facto cap­i­tal of the ex­trem­ist group’s self-de­scribed caliphate.

The U.S.-backed Syria Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), which in­clude Kur­dish, Arab and Turk­men fight­ers, have driven Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL, from large swaths of ter­ri­tory. Turkey views the Syr­ian Kurds who dom­i­nate the group as an ex­ten­sion of the Kur­dish in­sur­gency rag­ing in its south­east.

Turkey, which has sent its own forces across the bor­der to back Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fight­ers, has sug­gested they lead the of­fen­sive to re­take Raqqa.

The Turkey-backed forces, now push­ing to­ward the Daesh strong­hold of al-Bab, have clashed with Daesh as well as the SDF.

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said Turkey­backed op­po­si­tion fight­ers cap­tured six vil­lages near al-Bab on Tues­day and are now about seven kilo­me­tres from the town.

Turk­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Mev­lut Cavu­soglu told re­porters that the U.S. chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dun­ford, told Turk­ish of­fi­cials dur­ing a re­cent visit that Kur­dish-led forces would only have a role in en­cir­cling Raqqa and would not en­ter the city.

“We hope that this will be the case and we ex­pect that our part­ners keep their prom­ises,” Cavu­soglu said.

He said “lo­cal” fight­ers aided by Turk­ish spe­cial forces should drive Daesh out of Raqqa, but also sug­gested that res­i­dents of the mainly Sunni Arab city might not wel­come Kur­dish forces.

“We should not force the peo­ple to choose be­tween two evils,” he said. The SDF has made some gains since the Raqqa of­fen­sive be­gan Sun­day, tak­ing over nearly a dozen vil­lages.

Il­ham Ahmed, a se­nior of­fi­cial in the po­lit­i­cal arm of the SDF, said the same forces lead­ing the of­fen­sive will en­ter Raqqa.

“The cam­paign will con­tinue to be in that form un­til it en­ters the city,” Ahmed told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

She said the Kur­dish-led SDF, as the main force on the ground, is best placed to de­cide what forces are needed to lib­er­ate the city.

A U.S. de­fence of­fi­cial said that the agree­ment Dun­ford made with his Turk­ish coun­ter­part was not ex­plic­itly a U.S. pro­hi­bi­tion on Syr­ian Kur­dish fight­ers go­ing into Raqqa.

The of­fi­cial said it was rather a U.S. com­mit­ment to “work with” Turkey on the ul­ti­mate com­po­si­tion of what is ex­pected to be a pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni Arab force to seize and hold the city.

The of­fi­cial was not autho­rized to dis­cuss details of Dun­ford’s talks in Ankara and spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

Ahmed said U.S of­fi­cials have not yet raised the pos­si­bil­ity of Turk­ish or Turkey-backed forces tak­ing part in the Raqqa of­fen­sive.

“I think (Ankara) is try­ing to pres­sure the Amer­i­cans to bring in al­lied groups into Raqqa. We are the main party that de­cides if we need such troops to be in­volved,” she said.

“We are self-suf­fi­cient. There is no need.”

The U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand says coali­tion war­planes have car­ried out more than 30 air raids north of Raqqa since Sun­day. SDF spokesper­son Talal Sillo told the Kur­dish news agency Hawar that the coali­tion has pro­vided fresh arms, in­clud­ing an­ti­tank mis­siles.

A Raqqa-based Syr­ian ac­tivist group, known as Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently, said Daesh mil­i­tants have pre­vented res­i­dents of a nearby vil­lage that was bombed by coali­tion forces from leav­ing and have im­posed a cur­few there.

Both the Raqqa ac­tivist group and Ob­ser­va­tory said that Daesh mil­i­tants have blown up a num­ber of bridges over irrigation canals north of Raqqa, near Ein Issa, where the SDF is based.

RODI SAID/REUTERS

Chil­dren flee clashes in vil­lages north of Raqqa, Syria. Raqqa is the de facto cap­i­tal of Daesh’s self-de­scribed caliphate.

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