Coali­tion looks miles away from Raqqa to fin­ish off Is­lamic State

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

For all the fo­cus on the bat­tle to capture Raqqa, the cli­mac­tic bat­tle against the Is­lamic State in Syria may be about to take place along a rel­a­tively un­known river val­ley miles away from the group’s self-styled “caliphate” cap­i­tal.

Mil­i­tary com­man­ders in Da­m­as­cus, Tehran and Moscow are set­ting their sights on the Syr­ian city of Deir el-Zour and the sur­round­ing Mid­dle Euphrates River Val­ley as the bat­tle­ground for the fight against the ji­hadi group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Lo­cated 90 miles from Raqqa, where U.S.-backed mili­tias be­gan their as­sault to re­take the city last week, the fer­tile stretch of land along the banks of the Euphrates River is home to Madan, Deir el-Zour and other Is­lamic State re­doubts. Many of the group’s lead­ers, in­clud­ing “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, have fled to the area.

Coali­tion com­man­ders and Pen­tagon of­fi­cials say the over­all bat­tle plan will ad­dress the Is­lamic State buildup in Deir el-Zour. But with all eyes fixed on

Raqqa, it re­mains to be seen how Syr­i­an­led op­er­a­tions, backed by Rus­sia, will af­fect that long-term strat­egy.

El­e­ments of the U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, or SDF, have borne the brunt of the fight­ing in and around Deir el-Zour. But the Raqqa op­er­a­tion is draw­ing fo­cus away from the Mid­dle Euphrates River Val­ley, leav­ing Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces and para­mil­i­tary groups back­ing the regime of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad to de­fend the area against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

Da­m­as­cus and min­ders in Moscow are hav­ing dif­fi­culty rein­ing in Ira­nian Shi­ite paramil­i­taries tied to the regime. The Ira­nian troops are play­ing their own re­gional game in south­ern Syria, an­tag­o­niz­ing U.S. forces who trained lo­cal fight­ers to carry out coali­tion op­er­a­tions against the Is­lamic State in the Mid­dle Euphrates River Val­ley.

A long-stand­ing de­con­flic­tion chan­nel be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Moscow, cre­ated to en­sure the Rus­sian-led mis­sion to prop up the As­sad regime in Syria did not in­ter­fere with U.S. ef­forts to de­feat the Is­lamic State, failed to pre­vent a drone at­tack on U.S. and Syr­ian forces out­side the coali­tion’s south­ern Syr­ian train­ing base in Tanf.

A for­eign drone re­port­edly bombed a joint U.S. and Syr­ian pa­trol out­side the Tanf camp last week. The Pen­tagon con­firmed there were no ca­su­al­ties from the at­tack but would not com­ment on whether the drone was op­er­ated by the Syr­ian armed forces or an­other for­eign mil­i­tary.

Rus­sian and Syr­ian lead­ers agreed not to en­ter the area sur­round­ing the camp at Tanf, des­ig­nat­ing it as a “de­con­flic­tion zone.”

But Ira­nian-backed forces have at­tempted to breach those ar­eas re­peat­edly over the past sev­eral weeks. The drone at­tacked Thurs­day as U.S. fighter jets launched airstrikes against Ira­nian forces try­ing to cross into the zone. It was the sec­ond U.S. airstrike against those forces in as many months.

Safe havens

Is­lamic State lead­ers, in­clud­ing alBagh­dadi, re­port­edly be­gan flee­ing Raqqa for Deir el-Zour, Madan and other ar­eas in the Mid­dle Euphrates River Val­ley en masse in May, of­fi­cials at U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand said at the time.

Their es­cape, likely prompted by the coali­tion’s ad­vances in Mo­sul, con­vinced fac­tions within the group’s lead­er­ship “from a mil­i­tary per­spec­tive, that this may not be ten­able to hold on to Raqqa,” said a com­mand of­fi­cial speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

U.S. mil­i­tary plan­ners, in­clud­ing top coali­tion com­man­der Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, sought to ex­pe­dite the Raqqa of­fen­sive in part to en­sure top lead­ers of the Is­lamic State were not able to es­cape the coali­tion’s tight­en­ing noose around the city.

But out­side fac­tors, in­clud­ing ongoing ten­sions be­tween the U.S. and Turkey over the Kur­dish role in the op­er­a­tion, ul­ti­mately hin­dered ef­forts to speed up the Raqqa as­sault. A week into the op­er­a­tion to lib­er­ate Raqqa, ques­tions over the true strate­gic im­por­tance of the city have only grown louder within de­fense and na­tional se­cu­rity cir­cles.

Is­lamic State-in­spired at­tacks have rocked the United King­dom, Sin­ga­pore and else­where as the ter­ror­ist group loses its main pil­lars of power in Iraq and Syria.

Clashes be­tween Is­lamic State fight­ers and Rus­sian-backed Syr­ian forces are also heat­ing up in the Euphrates Val­ley, giv­ing Da­m­as­cus and its back­ers in Moscow an open­ing to ex­pand Mr. As­sad’s grip on Syria.

Regime forces re­pelled over 1,000 fight­ers on Mon­day when the ji­hadis at­tempted to over­run the city’s air­port and Syr­ian po­si­tions near Al-Tameen Brigade Base, lo­cal re­ports say.

The regime’s vic­tory over anti-gov­ern­ment forces in the rebel strong­hold of Aleppo late last year has em­bold­ened and in­creased Syr­ian and Rus­sian pres­ence on the Is­lamic State bat­tle­field.

Since March, the regime has car­ried out of­fen­sives in Deir Hafer, an Is­lamic State en­clave 30 miles east of Aleppo, and al-Bab. Gov­ern­ment troops seized con­trol of the main road­ways lead­ing from al-Bab into Raqqa in Fe­bru­ary.

That pres­ence, seen as an at­tempt by the As­sad regime to main­tain sway over the coun­try and gain lever­age dur­ing ongoing peace talks, has con­founded U.S. and coali­tion com­man­ders try­ing to main­tain or­der among the var­i­ous forces bat­tling the Is­lamic State in north­ern Syria.

Iran’s game

In south­ern Syria, Tehran is play­ing a sim­i­lar but much more dan­ger­ous game with the United States in and around the Syr­ian-Iraqi bor­der where U.S. forces are train­ing lo­cal mili­tias in the fight against the Is­lamic State.

Hun­dreds of Shi­ite para­mil­i­tary forces con­tinue to amass around the Syr­ian coali­tion base at Tanf along the Iraqi bor­der. The mili­tias be­ing trained by Amer­i­can spe­cial op­er­a­tions ad­vis­ers, some of whom are for­mer mem­bers of the Free Syr­ian Army, will spear­head coali­tion op­er­a­tions against the Is­lamic State in Der el-Zour and the Mid­dle Euphrates River Val­ley.

While train­ing con­tin­ues apace, the mass­ing of hun­dreds of Ira­nian mili­ti­a­men and pro-regime forces around the base at Tanf have ef­fec­tively cut off the main routes from the bor­der ar­eas into the val­ley, for­mer U.S. Am­bas­sador to Saudi Ara­bia Robert Ford wrote in a re­cent anal­y­sis for the Mid­dle East In­sti­tute.

“This Syr­ian gov­ern­ment dash ef­fec­tively blocks the north­east­ern ad­vance of the Amer­i­can-backed Syr­ian rebel forces … leav­ing them bot­tled up in a Pu­san-like cor­ner,” wrote Mr. Ford, who is a se­nior fel­low for the Wash­ing­ton­based think tank.

Clashes be­tween U.S. forces and proregime forces tied to Iran may be the be­gin­ning of a smaller fight in the shadow of the Is­lamic State cam­paign.

Ira­nian-backed forces al­lied with the As­sad regime are look­ing to join Shi­ite mili­tias, known as Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Units, af­fil­i­ated with Hezbol­lah and the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps fight­ing the Is­lamic State in Iraq, Mr. Ford said.

“Wash­ing­ton will face a dilemma if, as likely, the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment chooses to es­ca­late in east­ern Syria in the weeks ahead,” he added.

With Mo­sul op­er­a­tions ex­pected to wrap up within weeks, sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ments of the PMUs could end up flooding into Syria to take the fight to the Is­lamic State there, ex­pand­ing Tehran’s in­flu­ence in Syria, said David Pol­lock, a se­nior Mid­dle East an­a­lyst at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

“They are al­ready there in great num­bers,” Mr. Pol­lock said last week at a ter­ror­ism sym­po­sium spon­sored by the Foun­da­tion for the De­fense of Democ­ra­cies. He was re­fer­ring to Iraqi PMUs join­ing forces with Shi­ite mili­tias al­ready in Syria in sup­port.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

As a bru­tal war rav­ages Raqqa, the cli­mac­tic bat­tle against the Is­lamic State in Syria might take place about 90 miles away in Madan, Deir el-Zour and other Is­lamic State re­doubts in the Mid­dle Euphrates River Val­ley where many group lead­ers have fled.

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