Raqa assault might take longer than Pentagon chief predicts
After Iraqi security forces eventually recapture Mosul, the Islamic State group will be left with only Raqa in neighboring Syria as a bastion, and the jihadists’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” will be largely gone. The US-led coalition has been striking IS across both countries for more than two years, and has long held Raqa in its sights-an IS defeat there would be a defining endpoint of the campaign. But Pentagon chief Ashton Carter surprised commanders last week when he declared the actual assault on Raqa could start “in the next few weeks,” after British Defense Minister Michael Fallon made a similar prediction.
Privately, many high-ranking Pentagon officials were caught off-guard, and expressed skepticism the Raqa push could start so soon, given the Gordian knot of unpredictability in the chaos of Syria. Carter’s timeline is “a little more ahead of what I have been hearing so far,” one US defense official told AFP on condition of anonymity, choosing his words carefully. Another US defense official said the military’s expectations for Raqa-a city with a pre-war population of about 220,000 — didn’t match Carter’s timeline. And a third military official said that while the assault could theoretically start in weeks, it may take “single-digit months,” pushing the possible timeline out to “nine months or less.” That official added the assault may yet start before 2017, “but it could drag on further for other reasons we can’t control.” “It’s up to” the local forces, he added. “We are ready if they are ready.”
Even before the start of a ground offensive, likely to be fought along similar lines to the one happening in Mosul, coalition planes must complete the “isolation,” “shaping” and “envelopment” of Raqa. This entails non-stop strikes on IS fighting positions and the slicing of supply lines into and out of the northern Syrian city. Coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said those operations had already partially succeeded, and had helped cut routes from Raqa to and from Europe. “What we’re talking about is a higher level of isolation that greatly reduces the freedom of movement of Daesh to go into and come out of that city,” he said.
Military officials are grappling with a slew of unknowns that have not been at play in the Mosul fight. Whereas Iraqi security forces are a mostly cohesive fighting force under centralized control, the US-led coalition is relying on a more nebulous fighting crew in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) number around 30,000 fighters, two thirds of whom are Kurds fighting under the banner of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG,) with Syrian Arabs broadly making up the rest. — AFP
COLONGE: People attend a pro-Kurdish demonstration in Cologne, western Germany, as part of an international day in support to Kurds. — AFP