Factions quit U.S. op­er­a­tion to re­take Raqqa

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY CARLO MUNOZ

While the U.S.-backed cam­paign to re­take the city of Mo­sul from the Is­lamic State in Iraq makes slow but steady progress, the bat­tle for Raqqa, Syria, the “cap­i­tal” of the group’s self-styled caliphate, has got­ten off to a much shakier start, with var­i­ous factions of the U.S.-backed coali­tion al­ready at odds.

Arab and Kur­dish factions of the Syr­ian De­fense Forces, the um­brella coali­tion of mili­tia groups in the country picked by Wash­ing­ton to spear­head the as­sault on Raqqa, have be­gun peel­ing off from the main force as they inch closer to the city, U.S. de­fense of­fi­cials said.

Mean­while, Turkey con­tin­ues its own thinly veiled drive to­ward the Is­lamic State’s cap­i­tal, press­ing into the Syr­ian city of al-Bab, 100 miles west of Raqqa.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan has re­fused to ac­knowl­edge the Raqqa op­er­a­tion, led by the Kur­dish-Arab joint force.

The Pen­tagon an­nounced that U.S. com­man­ders are with­hold­ing air sup­port for the Turk­ish ad­vance, say­ing the move is not in line with the U.S.-backed coali­tion’s bat­tle plan against the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“It’s a mess up there,” one U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial told The Wash­ing­ton Times last week, re­gard­ing the in­creas­ingly chaotic sit­u­a­tion fac­ing the U.S.-backed Syr­ian coali­tion mov­ing on Raqqa.

A large num­ber of Syr­ian Kur­dish mem­bers of the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Unit, also known as YPG, have aban­doned the 30,000-mem­ber as­sault force, which be­gan its drive to­ward the Is­lamic State cap­i­tal on Nov. 6, a sec­ond U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial told The Times.

Those YPG fight­ers from the Afrin district of north­ern Aleppo be­gan leav­ing the Raqqa op­er­a­tion, dubbed Euphrates Rage, af­ter Turk­ish forces stepped up their at­tacks on the be­sieged district.

Ankara or­dered airstrikes, heavy ar­tillery and mor­tar strikes against YPG units in Afrin in Septem­ber. As the armed fac­tion of the Kur­dish Work­ers’ Party, the United States and Turkey both rec­og­nize the YPG as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The Syr­ian Arab fac­tion of the SDF is far­ing no bet­ter, ac­cord­ing to reports. A week into the Raqqa op­er­a­tion, top of­fi­cials from the Raqqa Revo­lu­tion­ary Bri­gade said they were drop­ping out of the of­fen­sive.

The group’s po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cer, Mah­moud Hadi, told the Mid­dle East Eye this month that U.S. ad­vis­ers were sidelin­ing Arab factions of the coali­tion in fa­vor of Kur­dish el­e­ments.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter lauded the kick­off of the Raqqa cam­paign this month, not­ing that the op­er­a­tion “marks the next step in our coali­tion cam­paign plan.”

“As in Mo­sul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead, but it is nec­es­sary to end the fic­tion of ISIL’s caliphate” in the Mid­dle East and else­where around the globe, Mr. Carter said.

The Pen­tagon re­mains pub­licly con­fi­dent that the Arab and Kur­dish paramil­i­taries fight­ing to­ward Raqqa as part of the U.S. coali­tion will re­main in­tact.

Syr­ian coali­tion forces “will be part of not only the ef­fort to iso­late Raqqa, but ul­ti­mately the force that helps to take Raqqa and hold Raqqa,” Pen­tagon press sec­re­tary Peter Cook said this month.

Coali­tion forces in Syria have re­taken more than 120 square miles of Is­lamic State ter­ri­tory in roughly three weeks of fight­ing, Col. John Dor­rian, the top spokesman for Op­er­a­tion In­her­ent Re­solve, told re­porters at the Pen­tagon last week.

For­mer CIA chief Michael V. Hay­den said the U.S.-backed cam­paigns in Iraq and Syria were “ac­tu­ally in a good place right now.”

“I think we have been late and light, un­der­re­sourced, over­reg­u­lated. But … we’re ac­tu­ally go­ing to squeeze them” now, he said dur­ing an in­ter­view on ABC’s “This Week.” “They are go­ing to end ex­is­tence as the Is­lamic State.”

The U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to back Kur­dish fight­ers al­lied with the YPG in the fight against the Is­lamic State could up­end a long-term po­si­tion in the re­gion, said a for­mer head of the Turk­ish mil­i­tary.

The Pen­tagon’s de­ci­sion to re­buff Ankara’s of­fer to as­sist U.S.-backed Syr­ian forces to re­take the strate­gi­cally key city of Man­bij ear­lier this year, in­stead mov­ing on the city with the help of YPG forces, was a mis­take, Gen. Ilker Bas­bug, re­tired chief of the Turk­ish Army’s Gen­eral Staff, told a small group of re­porters in Wash­ing­ton.

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