In Raqqa, It Could Be the Beginning of the End for Daesh

Paul R. Huard

 The battle for Raqqa is about to begin.

The de facto capital of Daesh’s so-called caliphate, capture of the city in northern Syria is the objective of the American-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

A U.S. military source told this column that the battle could begin “in days.” Furthermore, the source stated the goal is the speedy seizure of Raqqa by the SDF – or at least operations that will avoid a repeat of the bloody, eight-month struggle to capture Mosul where Daesh has made its last stand within Iraq.

That’s a tall order. There’s an old saying in the military: No operational plan survives first contact.

But Kurdish fighters, their Middle Eastern allies, and the United States believe the situation now outside of Raqqa is different than what Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga have faced during their siege of Mosul. There’s hope – a glimmer of hope – that the fight for Raqqa will go differently.

Here are some factors to consider:

The SDF is poised around Raqqa, varying in distance from the city of about 300,000 people from within about 2 miles from the north and the east, and about 6 miles from the city to the west.

On Saturday, SDF fighters cleared an approach to the city from the south bank of the Euphrates River that will allow an assault. Raqqa lies on the northern side of the river.

In preparation for an assault, American and coalition warplanes have intensified airstrikes against Daesh forces in and around Raqqa during the last three weeks. This helped ground forces push Islamist fighters into the city.

In short, Daesh is surrounded. That tactical situation fits the conditions described last month by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who said President Donald Trump wants U.S.-backed forces to encircle Daesh fighters in their strongholds before executing major ground and air strikes against them.

“(The president) directed a tactical shift, from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight, to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS,” Mattis told reporters May 19, referring to Daesh by a commonly used acronym.

It looks like the SDF will pursue this so-called “annihilation strategy” that will leave Daesh nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. In addition, it fulfils an important goal of U.S. commanders who have long argued for simultaneous offenses in both Raqqa and Mosul so the Daesh would be forced to fight on two fronts.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said SDF militias “have given instructions to the citizens of Raqqa to vacate.” How they will do so remains to be seen: Daesh is infamous for using civilians as human shields as well as attempting to blend in with escaping refugees in an effort to avoid capture.

The U.S. also finally decided to arm Kurdish forces – most commonly called the YPG – despite strenuous objections from Turkey, a NATO ally.

The YPG has long sought weapons from the United States. The U.S. will provide small arms, ammunition, heavy machine guns, and anti-tank weapons, as well as continue the air and artillery support that helped the Kurdish forces pave the way for the upcoming assault.

The Kurdish fighters are thrilled by the decision, even if the Pentagon describes the distribution of arms as “limited.”

“We believe that from now on and after this historic decision, the YPG will play a stronger, more influential and more decisive role in combating terrorism at a fast pace,” spokesman Redur Xelil said in a written statement to Reuters news service.

Undoubtedly, the attack on Raqqa will be bloody and costly. There is also an excellent chance that the battle will create another humanitarian crisis as civilians lose their lives and their homes.

All the world can do is hope that the battle for Raqqa is both quick and decisive, leading to Daesh’s utter defeat and the end of the barbarity they have wrought in the region.