Coali­tion be­gins last bat­tle for Raqqa

U.S.-backed forces fight­ing to rid city of Is­lamic State

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

U.S.-backed Syr­ian forces launched the long-awaited as­sault on the Is­lamic State’s self­styled cap­i­tal of Raqqa on Tues­day, mark­ing what the Pen­tagon says will be the begin­ning of the end of the ter­ror­ist group’s hopes for a caliphate in its last ma­jor strong­hold in the coun­try.

The lib­er­a­tion of the north­ern Syr­ian city from three years of Is­lamic State dom­i­na­tion likely will be one of the most bru­tal fights that the U.S.-backed coali­tion has faced since the war be­gan in earnest in 2014.

The bat­tle, com­ing as the U.S. and its al­lies are try­ing to clear out the last de­ter­mined Is­lamic State re­sis­tance in the Iraqi city of Mo­sul, also will pro­vide a win­dow into the U.S. mil­i­tary’s fight­ing pos­ture af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump vowed to re­move what he said were re­stric­tions im­posed by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in the fight against the Is­lamic State and other ji­hadi groups op­er­at­ing in Syria.

But bat­tling Is­lamic State fighters on the streets of Raqqa may not be the only front for Amer­i­can and coali­tion forces.

Sim­mer­ing ten­sions be­tween

the U.S. and Turkey over the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s sup­port for Kur­dish groups lead­ing the Raqqa fight threaten to boil over at one of the most cru­cial points in the cam­paign against the Is­lamic State. Mean­while, Syr­ian forces loyal to Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad and their Ira­nian and Rus­sian pa­trons may try to lever­age the fight for Raqqa to ex­pand their control over the war-rav­aged coun­try.

Ques­tions also re­main over the strate­gic im­por­tance of re­claim­ing Raqqa. U.S. in­tel­li­gence re­ports say nearly all of the group’s key lead­ers, in­clud­ing Is­lamic State “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, have fled the besieged city for safe havens else­where in Syria.

Is­lamic State-in­spired at­tacks in the United King­dom, Sin­ga­pore and else­where have raised fears that the ter­ror­ist group may turn to at­tacks in the West as it loses its two main pil­lars of power in Iraq and Syria.

“Raqqa will be an im­por­tant step … but it will not be the end of the ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Pen­tagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Tues­day.

Af­ter a long pe­riod of prepa­ra­tion, the Raqqa fight be­gan in earnest early Tues­day when el­e­ments of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, a col­lec­tion of Arab and Kur­dish mili­tias, launched at­tacks along the city’s eastern and north­ern bor­ders, ad­vanc­ing to within 2 miles of the em­bat­tled city. Along the city’s western edges, Syr­ian mili­ti­a­men cleared ter­ri­tory and set up sup­ply routes into the city.

Marine Corps ar­tillery teams pro­vided cover for SDF fighters mak­ing their way to­ward the city lim­its, lob­bing 155 mm shells onto Is­lamic State de­fen­sive po­si­tions. AH-64 Apache at­tack he­li­copters also pro­vided cover for SDF fighters and U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions ad­vis­ers from the sky, said Capt. Davis.

Arab and Kur­dish fighters, and their Amer­i­can ad­vis­ers, have spent the past sev­eral months gain­ing ter­ri­tory around Raqqa, bat­tling to en­cir­cle the city be­fore launch­ing the fi­nal as­sault. The al­liance in April seized the strate­gi­cally im­por­tant Tabqa Dam, roughly 30 miles west of the Is­lamic State cap­i­tal, pro­vid­ing a prime launch­ing point for the push to­ward Raqqa.

“The in­ter­na­tional coali­tion and our part­ner forces are steadily dis­man­tling the phys­i­cal caliphate of ISIS,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq and Syria, said at the on­set of the Raqqa op­er­a­tion.

“There will still be a lot of hard fight­ing ahead, but this coali­tion is strong and com­mit­ted to the com­plete an­ni­hi­la­tion of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria,” he said in a com­mand state­ment.

Power plays

Ques­tions re­main over how quickly the Raqqa fight will last and more cru­cially what role Turkey, a NATO ally deeply sus­pi­cious of the Kur­dish mili­tias, will play.

Re­la­tions be­tween Ankara and Wash­ing­ton have been icy since June, when Amer­i­can com­man­ders re­buffed a Turk­ish of­fer to re­take the Is­lamic State­held Syr­ian city of Man­bij.

U.S. forces lib­er­ated the city along­side Kur­dish mili­tia groups, some of which Ankara con­sid­ers ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions with links to Kur­dish sep­a­ratists who have long op­er­ated in­side Turkey.

Since then, Turkey has car­ried out uni­lat­eral coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions, flush­ing out Is­lamic State fighters from a string of north­ern Syr­ian cities.

Ankara has bombed Kur­dish mili­tia mem­bers in Syria tied to the Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or YPG. The YPG, which is also a mem­ber of the U.S.-backed SDF, is the armed fac­tion of the Turk­ish-based Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party, or PKK.

Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, South Carolina Re­pub­li­can, praised Mr. Trump for free­ing U.S. com­man­ders to carry the fight to the Is­lamic State but ex­pressed con­cern Tues­day on Fox News that the heav­ily Kur­dish as­sault force will have trou­ble hold­ing the heav­ily Arab city if and when the Is­lamic State is de­feated.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials in­sisted Tues­day that Turkey would have a key role in the fight.

Capt. Davis said the tim­ing of the White House de­ci­sion last month to openly arm Syr­ian Kurds had no in­flu­ence on the Raqqa of­fen­sive. “This is an op­er­a­tion that is be­ing led by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, and we are work­ing to en­able them,” he said.

With Turkey’s role in the Raqqa fight still in ques­tion, coali­tion com­man­ders are keep­ing a wary eye on Da­m­as­cus and the regime of Bashar As­sad. Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces in March be­gan push­ing heav­ily into Is­lamic State­con­trolled ar­eas in the north­ern part of the coun­try.

The regime of­fen­sive on Deir Hafer, an Is­lamic State en­clave 30 miles east of Aleppo, was the sec­ond one car­ried out by As­sad forces against the Is­lamic State. Gov­ern­ment troops, backed by Rus­sian air power, moved on the Is­lamic State­con­trolled city of al Bab in Fe­bru­ary and took control of the main road­ways lead­ing from the city into Raqqa.

Those ad­vances, seen as an at­tempt by Mr. As­sad to gain lever­age dur­ing on­go­ing peace talks, has com­pli­cated Amer­i­can and coali­tion ef­forts to main­tain or­der among the var­i­ous forces bat­tling in Syria.

‘Ex­ter­nal op­er­a­tions’

Ter­ror­ist strikes in Western Europe, the Philip­pines and else­where have some an­a­lysts say­ing the fall of Raqqa and Mo­sul may not be the crush­ing blow to the Is­lamic State that many have pre­dicted.

On Tues­day, Capt. Davis chal­lenged the no­tion that an Is­lamic State de­feat in its Syr­ian and Iraqi ter­ri­to­rial base would be a to­ken vic­tory for the coali­tion.

“It is not just a sym­bolic bat­tle … but it is part of a broader cam­paign to lib­er­ate all of Syria and Iraq from ISIS control,” Capt. Davis said. “I do not know if I can paint a di­rect line for you, but we know Raqqa as the cap­i­tal of the caliphate and used as a place where ex­ter­nal op­er­a­tions were planned.”

But the city’s im­por­tance as the hub for plan­ning and di­rect­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks has di­min­ished in re­cent weeks.

Aside from is­su­ing gen­eral edicts and guide­lines on how Is­lamic State forces should de­fend their ter­ri­tory, alBagh­dadi and his clos­est lieu­tenants “are not ex­er­cis­ing any tac­ti­cal in­flu­ence” in ei­ther fight, a U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial said last month. The Is­lamic State leader and his in­ner cir­cle have likely fled to the group’s safe havens in Deir-el-zour, roughly 90 miles south­east of Raqqa.

If Mo­sul is any in­di­ca­tion, the bat­tle for Raqqa will be long and grind­ing, The Associated Press re­ported. Iraqi forces in Mo­sul have faced stiff re­sis­tance in the form of sui­cide car bombs, rocket at­tacks and booby-trapped build­ings since the cam­paign be­gan in Oc­to­ber. Raqqa is much smaller than Mo­sul, but even the bat­tles for sur­round­ing towns took weeks to com­plete.

REUTERS

TO THE RES­CUE: Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces have made their way to Raqqa and be­gun a bru­tal bat­tle to erad­i­cate mil­i­tants of the Is­lamic State group, which seized the city in 2014 and pro­claimed it as its cap­i­tal.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Fighters from the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces look to­ward the north­ern town of Tabqa. U.S.-backed forces are fight­ing the Is­lamic State group in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

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