US has Raqqa in its cross hairs but disagreement with Turkey is delaying assault on IS capital
The main challenge in retaking Raqqa has always been who will lead the fight on the ground and whether those forces can be trained quickly enough
With the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul barely begun, the US and its allies say they need to move within weeks on the other remaining Islamic State (IS) stronghold, Raqqa in Syria. The trouble is that no one can agree on who should do the actual fighting.
The US commander of the campaign against IS says the only group capable and ready for such a battle is the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up largely of Kurdish fighters. Turkey, however, wants to keep the Kurds out of the fight to prevent them from connecting their autonomous areas in Syria. It’s backing a separate Syrian rebel group, the Free Syrian Army’s Brigade 51, which says it will be on the march soon.
“We’re prepared for this,” said Colonel Haitham Afisi, the brigade’s commander, from the Syrian frontier in Aleppo province, where it has been pushing the jihadists from territory bordering Turkey. “It will be a tougher war than the one in Mosul because there will be a concentration of IS there and eliminating them will be harder. But the coordination between the Free Syrian Army and the coalition will be greater.”
Afisi’s comments reflect the growing belief, shared by top US officials, that the fight for Raqqa must begin soon to prevent IS from consolidating its forces as they’re pushed from Mosul. The US military claims the militant group is planning overseas attacks coordinated from Raqqa, increasing the need to move.
Raqqa, which is on the banks of the Euphrates River and about 350km northeast of the Syrian capital Damascus, became the first provincial centre to fall to the opposition in 2013. IS captured most of the province from other rebel groups early the following year and turned the city into its de facto capital.
The main challenge in retaking Raqqa has always been who will lead the fight on the ground, with support from US and allied advisers and air power, and whether those forces can be trained quickly enough.
Speaking to reporters from Baghdad on Wednesday, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, said the only group “capable on any near frame” is the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the Kurdish YPG.
Turkey considers that group an offshoot of the separatist PKK, which the US and the European Union have designated as a terrorist organisation. Turkey has battled the PKK, an armed group that’s fought for autonomy in the country, for three decades. The conflict has left about 40,000 people dead.
“We’re negotiating, we’re planning, we’re having talks with Turkey and we’re going to take this in steps,” Townsend said.
He said another big chunk of the Syrian Democratic Forces consists of Arab fighters from the region around Raqqa.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he told US President Barack Obama in a phone call on Wednesday that his country could rid Raqqa of IS all by itself. Obama underscored to Erdogan the need for efforts against IS to be “effectively integrated with the operations of other members of the coalition,” according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
One solution could have the Kurds play a leading role in the push toward Raqqa while the US and its allies beef up the Arab presence – perhaps using FSA units currently involved in the Turkish-backed offensive farther north – before a final push into the city itself, said Rashad al-Kattan, a political and security risk analyst who’s a fellow at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. That would echo plans in Iraq, where Shiite militias and Kurdish forces that are currently involved in the push toward Mosul are expected to be kept out of the fighting once it reaches the Sunni-dominated city.
“The Turks’ main aim is to derail any plans from the Kurds to have an autonomous region in Syria,” Al-Kattan said. “Turkey wants to have a stake in what’s going on in Syria.”
Turkey’s Defence Minister Fikri Isik, speaking from Brussels, suggested on Thursday, though, that his country is adamant in its opposition to any major Kurdish role. Turkey can prepare a force to retake Raqqa as quickly as possible if coalition countries agree to prevent Kurdish forces from participating, he told state-run TRT television.
The Mosul campaign, which began October 17, has seen advances by Iraqi government forces and Kurdish fighters, though IS has put up fierce resistance and American officials still aren’t willing to say when the city is likely to fall. The fight for Raqqa will be far more challenging because in Syria the US doesn’t have the government as an ally. Along with its European and Middle East allies, Washington backs what it calls moderate rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war.