Anti-ISIS forces have different plans in race to Raqqa

Sunday 12/06/2016
Syrian government soldier preparing to fire on ISIS forces in province of 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.