From Mo­sul to Raqqa? A com­plex, risky bat­tle

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Si­mul­ta­ne­ous at­tacks on the Is­lamic State-held cities of Mo­sul in Iraq and Raqqa, the de facto cap­i­tal of the mil­i­tant group’s self-pro­claimed caliphate across the border in Syria, would make mil­i­tary sense: such as­saults would make it harder for the ex­trem­ists to move re­in­force­ments and deny them a safe haven. When pre­par­ing for the Mo­sul op­er­a­tions this sum­mer, US of­fi­cials said a push against IS in Raqqa could be al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ous, putting ad­di­tional pres­sure on the group by stretch­ing its abil­ity to de­fend two strongholds at once.

While the long-awaited Mo­sul of­fen­sive be­gan ear­lier this week, there’s no sign of an im­mi­nent cam­paign against Raqqa. Per­haps that’s be­cause Syria is prov­ing to be a more daunt­ing ter­rain than Iraq. Go­ing af­ter IS-held Raqqa would mean mov­ing deeper into an ex­plo­sive mix of re­gional and in­ter­na­tional ri­val­ries, in­clud­ing a proxy war that has pit­ted the United States against Rus­sia and its al­lies.

The fight against IS in north­east­ern Syria also un­der­lines a US re­liance on its one ef­fec­tive part­ner there Syria’s Kurds. Such an al­liance for a Raqqa cam­paign threat­ens to ig­nite a new con­flict, with an­other US part­ner, NATO member Turkey, and its al­lied Syr­ian rebels. In Iraq, the US of­fers lo­gis­ti­cal and other sup­port for the mil­i­tary in its fight against IS. In Syria, Washington views Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s govern­ment as il­le­git­i­mate and can­not part­ner with him.

Even if IS were to be driven out of Raqqa, find­ing some­one to ad­min­is­ter the city would be prob­lem­atic, said Noah Bon­sey, a Syria ex­pert with the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group think tank. Mo­sul is the largest city un­der IS con­trol, with an es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of up to one mil­lion and no more than 10,000 fight­ers. Oil-rich Raqqa is home to nearly 200,000 peo­ple, most Sunni Arabs, and an es­ti­mated 5,000 mil­i­tants.

Bon­sey said re­tak­ing Raqqa is key to de­feat­ing IS mil­i­tar­ily, a US pri­or­ity, but that among the war­ring fac­tions in Syria “every­body else has other geostrate­gic in­ter­ests that take higher pri­or­ity.” In re­cent weeks, US-led coali­tion airstrikes tar­geted half a dozen bridges in Syria’s largely IS­con­trolled Deir el-Zour prov­ince be­tween Raqqa and the Iraqi border. The strikes were aimed at cut­ting the road be­tween Iraq and Syria for flee­ing mil­i­tants.

Ac­tivist Hus­sam Eesa re­ported in­creased IS ac­tiv­ity in Raqqa, in­clud­ing more night-time check­points, and said some wounded and IS fam­i­lies ar­rived from Mo­sul be­fore the start of the of­fen­sive. He said there was no sign of panic in Raqqa. Most for­ti­fi­ca­tions in Raqqa, such as trenches, were built long ago, said Eesa, who is not in the city and whose group, Raqqa Is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently, re­lies on leaked re­ports from res­i­dents.

Refuge

Raqqa could serve as a refuge for IS fight­ers flee­ing Mo­sul, even if roads are harder to ac­cess, said Jen­nifer Ca­farella of the Washington-based In­sti­tute for the Study of War. Re­treat­ing fight­ers could also hide among flee­ing civil­ians, or travel in small groups to evade coali­tion air­craft, she said. Oth­ers could with­draw to desert ar­eas be­tween Syria and Iraq for stag­ing fu­ture at­tacks.

Since the sum­mer’s dis­cus­sions in Washington about a pos­si­ble dou­ble-strike against IS, Turkey has en­tered the fray. Start­ing in Au­gust, Ankara has backed Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fight­ers with tanks and air­craft. This has com­pli­cated plan­ning for a pos­si­ble Raqqa cam­paign and threat­ened Amer­ica’s main ally on the ground, the Kurds. The ri­val­ries are dan­ger­ous be­cause IS is deft at ex­ploit­ing di­vi­sions among its en­e­mies, said Ca­farella.

Kur­dish fight­ers, mostly the well-trained and highly or­ga­nized Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or YPG, have been the US part­ner in the anti-IS fight in Syria since 2015 when they freed the town of Kobani. In re­turn for lead­ing the bat­tle for Raqqa, the Kurds demand to be armed by the US and to win po­lit­i­cal recog­ni­tion of their right to self-rule.

That would en­rage Ankara, which con­sid­ers the Syr­ian Kur­dish forces as an off­shoot of its do­mes­tic rebels it deems a ter­ror­ist group. Ca­farella said di­rectly arm­ing the Kur­dish forces would sim­plify lo­gis­tics dur­ing plan­ning for a ma­jor of­fen­sive. But the po­ten­tial for di­rect con­fronta­tion be­tween the Kurds and Turk­ish and Ankara-backed Syr­ian forces “would cause a huge rip­ple in the strat­egy” and would be dif­fi­cult for the US to mit­i­gate while con­duct­ing a ma­jor op­er­a­tion on the Iraqi side, she said.

Il­ham Ahmed, a se­nior Syr­ian Kur­dish of­fi­cial who was in Washington last month, claimed that prepa­ra­tions by Kur­dish-led forces for such an of­fen­sive are in their final phase, sug­gest­ing US recog­ni­tion and arm­ing are a mat­ter of time. She did not pro­vide de­tails. Fight­ing else­where in Syria has fur­ther com­pli­cated the sit­u­a­tion, in­clud­ing a Turk­ish push in the north­ern Aleppo prov­ince and a bid for Al-Bab, an IS-run town in the area. The Kurds are also vy­ing for con­trol of Al-Bab, in hopes of con­nect­ing sep­a­rate can­tons they hold along the Syr­ian border with Turkey.

‘Ter­ror-Free Zone’

Mean­while, Turk­ish troops and Syr­ian rebels ar­gue that by ad­vanc­ing on Al-Bab, they can break the Syr­ian govern­ment’s hold on the rebel-held be­sieged city of Aleppo city, 30 km to the west, while also deny­ing the Kurds their con­tin­u­ous ter­ri­tory. “Both ac­tors want to grab more ter­ri­tory to pre­vent the other from grab­bing more ter­ri­tory and both want to im­prove the depth and breadth of co­or­di­na­tion with the US against the in­ter­est of the other,” Bon­sey said. Since Au­gust, Turkey-backed ef­forts have driven IS mil­i­tants and Kur­dish rebels from a large swath along the border. The aim, Ankara said, is to set up an even larger “ter­ror-free zone” of as much as 5,000 sq km in­side Syria, tram­pling on the Kur­dish as­pi­ra­tions. — AP

Iraqi forces de­ploy in Ba­jwaniyah vil­lage, about 30 km south of Mo­sul, on Tues­day af­ter they lib­er­ated it from Is­lamic State (IS) group. — AFP

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