Obama un­likely to see as­sault on Raqqa

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

AUS-backed as­sault on Raqqa, Is­lamic State’s de facto cap­i­tal in Syria, is un­likely to pierce the city it­self be­fore Pres­i­dent Barack Obama leaves of­fice in Jan­uary, deny­ing him the chance to claim the end of the group’s “caliphate” as part of his legacy. Although a USbacked al­liance of Syr­ian armed groups an­nounced the kick­off of the of­fen­sive on Sun­day, US of­fi­cials cau­tion the fight­ers will first try to seal off and iso­late the Is­lamic State strong­hold, a process that could take two months or longer.

As a re­sult, the vic­tor of to­day’s US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion al­most cer­tainly will in­herit the job of rout­ing the mil­i­tants from the city from which they have run their shrink­ing ter­ri­to­ries in Syria and Iraq, over­seen branches from West Africa to South Asia and plot­ted at­tacks in West­ern Europe and else­where. “There is no avail­able force ca­pa­ble of tak­ing Raqqa in the near fu­ture,” said one US of­fi­cial. An­other said some of the needed Arab forces were still in train­ing. Like seven other of­fi­cials in­ter­viewed for this re­port, they re­quested anonymity to dis­cuss the is­sue.

US Marine Gen­eral Joseph Dun­ford, the top US mil­i­tary of­fi­cer, played down the idea that seiz­ing Raqqa would be quick or easy, say­ing the first job was seal­ing off the city. “We al­ways ad­ver­tised that the iso­la­tion phase is go­ing to take months,” Dun­ford was quoted as say­ing on Sun­day by a US de­fense depart­ment re­porter trav­el­ing with him in Turkey. Dun­ford’s visit to Ankara came as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is en­meshed in a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act be­tween NATO ally Turkey and ri­val Syr­ian Kur­dish forces trained and equipped by the United States.

The US plan for Raqqa calls for an as­sault force of thou­sands of fight­ers from the Kur­dish Peo­ples De­fense Units, known as the YPG, and Arabs whose job it would be to take and hold the city it­self, US of­fi­cials said. How­ever, US spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces in north­ern Syria have yet to re­cruit enough Arabs to take and hold the Arab-dom­i­nated city, they said. Some US of­fi­cials and ex­perts doubt that the United States will be able to soon field an Arab force large and strong to de­feat thou­sands of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants who have had months to pre­pare a fi­nal stand.

They pointed out that some 25,000 Iraqi troops, mili­ti­a­men and Kur­dish pesh­merga fight­ers are in­volved in the of­fen­sive to wrest Mo­sul from an es­ti­mated 3,000 to 5,000 mil­i­tants. “Raqqa is ev­ery bit as in­fested as Mo­sul, per­haps even more so,” said Thomas Lynch, a Na­tional De­fense Uni­ver­sity fel­low and re­tired Army of­fi­cer. “But there is an enor­mous in­vest­ment by this ad­min­is­tra­tion in terms of go­ing af­ter Raqqa be­fore it leaves of­fice.”

Ad­min­is­tra­tion ad­vo­cates of a rapid as­sault on Raqqa think YPG units will par­tic­i­pate and enough Arabs will be en­listed and trained as the noose around the city tight­ens. An­other prob­lem is fight­ing that pits the YPG against USbacked Syr­ian Arab rebels sup­ported by air power, ar­tillery, ar­mor and spe­cial forces from neigh­bor­ing NATO ally Turkey.

‘Hand-Hold­ing Ex­er­cise’

The YPG is one of Amer­ica’s best al­lies in the fight against Is­lamic State. But Turkey de­nounces the YPG as an ap­pendage of the PKK, a group that has fought for decades for in­de­pen­dence for Turkey’s Kur­dish mi­nor­ity and is on the US ter­ror­ism list. The sides are em­broiled in a race to cap­ture Al-Bab, a non­de­script town held by Is­lamic State. Its fall to the Turk­ish-backed force could prompt the YPG to re­ject a role in the Raqqa of­fen­sive and al­ter the course of the con­flict in north­ern Syria. “That would be the out­come we least de­sire,” a sec­ond US of­fi­cial said.

Obama spent more than two hours on the tele­phone in late Oc­to­ber with Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Tayyip Er­do­gan as part of an in­tense US diplo­matic drive to over­come Er­do­gan’s ob­jec­tions to YPG par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Raqqa of­fen­sive, US of­fi­cials said. “For us, the linch­pin here is for the Turks to ex­er­cise enough re­straint (and) get them to re­sist the temp­ta­tion to do any­thing that would spark a con­flict that might get out of con­trol,” said the sec­ond US of­fi­cial. “It’s a hand­hold­ing ex­er­cise on both sides of the aisle.” But he and other US of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged that crush­ing Is­lamic State is not as high a pri­or­ity for Er­do­gan as en­sur­ing that the YPG can­not knit Kur­dish en­claves in north­ern Syria into a de facto state that could strengthen the PKK.

Russian Com­pli­ca­tions

The sit­u­a­tion is fur­ther com­pli­cated by Rus­sia, which in­ter­vened last year in Syria’s civil war to shore up Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad. With air­craft and ad­vis­ers de­ployed around Syria, Rus­sia has warned Turkey against ad­vanc­ing more than 25 km into Syria, said the sec­ond US of­fi­cial. For now, the Turkey-backed force has stopped short of al Bab, which is about 30 kilo­me­ters from the Turk­ish bor­der, US of­fi­cials said.

Tak­ing Al-Bab would ex­pand a buf­fer zone that Turkey is es­tab­lish­ing in­side Syria to seal its bor­der from Is­lamic State in­fil­tra­tion. Turkey’s in­cur­sion also has pre­vented the YPG from uni­fy­ing the north­ern Kur­dish en­claves. More­over, al Bab’s fall to the Turk­ish-backed force would ex­pand a po­ten­tial Turk­ish-pro­tected “safe zone” for mod­er­ate Syr­ian rebels, who could base their in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment-in-ex­ile in the area.

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