Anti-ISIS forces have different plans in race to Raqqa
DAMASCUS - The race to liberate Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, has seen the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) diverting their guns towards rural areas around Aleppo, while Russia-backed regime forces and their allies intensified their push towards the contested city.
The SDF, a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Circassian and Turkmen militias, launched the offensive on May 17th to capture the Islamic State (ISIS) bastion but, after days of fierce fighting under intensive air cover from the US-led coalition in which both sides suffered hundreds of casualties, the 12,000 SDF fighters supported by 250 US special forces had only advanced 5km out of the 55km separating them from the city.
The thrust towards Raqqa was halted as the SDF turned its attention and heavy guns on Manbij, al- Bab and Jarabulus, east of Aleppo.
Mansour Salloum, a senior official in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, said hostilities north of Raqqa had been suspended. “The operation was postponed until we can secure a safe corridor for the civilians to flee,” Salloum said.
However, observers pinned the change of plans on the difficulties progressing on the flat agricultural terrain that ISIS had littered with landmines and booby traps and the lack of a strong desire by the SDF to take on Raqqa. The Kurds, who make up the bulk of the force and nearly all its top commanders, are keener on capturing the towns on the west of the Euphrates river to link the Kurdish-held territories of Kobane and Afrin.
The SDF has succeeded in crossing the Euphrates and entering the northern and eastern neighbourhoods of Manbij despite Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s warning that the creation of an independent Kurdish entity on Turkey’s southern border was a “red line”.
Arab units within the SDF have different objectives. Some are supported by the Free Syrian Army while others are regarded as close to the Syrian regime but they do share the common goal of evicting ISIS from Raqqa and the rest of Syria.
“The elimination of ISIS is the beginning of the real Syrian revolution. All Syrian parties, including the Kurds, can engage in a dialogue and reach a possible formula of coexistence to end the war, except for ISIS… Arms are the only means of dialogue with them,” said an SDF commander who requested anonymity.
The commander acknowledged that the Kurdish-led force has been communicating with and receiving direct support from the Syrian regime. “Next to me there are combatants from the Free Syrian Army and they are fighting under the banner of the revolution,” he said.
Meanwhile, government forces and allied militias backed by Russian air power and Iranian and Russian forces have advanced 80km towards Raqqa, reaching the outskirts of al-Tabaqa airbase, where the army suffered heavy losses when ISIS seized the facility in the summer of 2014.
A Syrian Army source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed that the troops were progressing slowly towards Raqqa from two points under Russian air cover.
“We are not in a big hurry to reach Raqqa,” he said. “All the details of the military plan prepared with the help of Russian and Iranian advisers have been designed with great precision, taking into account the need to secure the areas that are liberated and to thwart any possible counter-attacks… In fact, our forces sustained such retaliations more than once and succeeded in controlling the situation.”
He said government forces were 27km from al-Tabaqa airbase and had to halt their advance for 24 hours because of a sandstorm. “Within a few days al-Tabaqa will be within the range of our artillery fire… We are fully confident that the city will be liberated soon by Syrian troops with the support of the Russians,” he said.
A major challenge for the advancing forces though will be to cross the Euphrates and enter the city from the southern and western side, where orchards are dense and residential buildings are concentrated.
“Once we reach the southern suburbs of Raqqa, all neighbourhoods will be within artillery range. The distance is less than 700 metres, which means there will be direct confrontations with ISIS,” the source said, adding that the attackers will be relying on support from dormant cells waiting to act and some troops will be airdropped in.
“We are confident that the militants will withdraw from Raqqa towards the east and from there to Deir ez-Zor,” he added.