Big push on Raqqa anticipated — but dangers lurk
BEIRUT - As US-backed Iraqi forces battle to capture Mosul, the Islamic State’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, the United States and its key allies are accelerating plans for a major military operation to liberate the capital of the jihadists’ self-proclaimed caliphate, Raqqa in northern Syria.
The United States has stepped up coalition air strikes on Raqqa, Syria’s sixth largest city, apparently driven by concerns that ISIS is planning another wave of large-scale terrorist attacks on the West in retaliation for recent military defeats that are steadily shrinking the caliphate it proclaimed in June 2014.
Destroying the caliphate, which at its height in 2014 covered an area across Syria and Iraq the size of Britain, has been the United States’ central objective because it represents jihadist power and for some Muslims cloaks ISIS with religious legitimacy.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the offensive against Raqqa, held by ISIS since January 2014, will begin in the “next few weeks” and “overlap” with the push against Mosul, which began October 17th.
“We want to see an isolation operation begin around Raqqa as soon as possible,” Carter said during a visit to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region on October 23rd.
Two days later, at a meeting with defence chiefs of 12 key allies in Paris, Carter said: “We’ve already begun laying the groundwork with our partners to commence the isolation of Raqqa.”
This is the most elaborate and complex military operation that the Americans and their allies have undertaken since the height of the war in Iraq in 2007 against the same jihadist enemy they face today.
Coalition sources say the planning for a push on Raqqa began in January, when Carter set the objective of taking both the Syrian city and Mosul by the end of 2016, although some US intelligence chiefs doubted that could be achieved given the competing agendas among anti-ISIS powers.
However, it is clear there is a new sense of urgency over concerns that ISIS leaders in Raqqa, alarmed by the group’s continuing military setbacks, are plotting terrorist attacks, possibly including chemical weapons, across western Europe and maybe even the United States to show that it has not been eliminated.
This has always been the Achilles heel of any military solution to the ISIS phenomenon: The jihadists simply go underground and revert to being a terrorist threat, as they have done more than once since al-Qaeda’s emergence two decades ago.
US Army Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, the officer who commands anti-ISIS coalition forces in Syria and Iraq, said at his Baghdad headquarters on October 26th: “We know this plot and planning is emanating from Raqqa”.
He provided few specifics but it seems the United States and its allies fear the jihadists are seeking to carry out attacks on the scale of the November 13th, 2015, carnage in Paris in which 130 people were killed.
Townsend stressed the imperative for the planned offensive was the terrorist threat, saying: “Intelligence feeds tell us there is significant external operations planning taking place, centralised in Raqqa.”
There was no indication how imminent these attacks might be but Carter stressed that preventing ISIS “external operations” is “our highest priority”.
“As they get squeezed down in their territory, they get more concerned about their own security and are less free to orchestrate complex attacks against either this country (France) or externally, including… the United States.”
One reason no details of the components of the Raqqa push have been disclosed is the fierce geopolitical differences concerning which forces will be employed in the operation — arguably the most worrying element within the US-led coalition because it impedes the coherency of the joint actions needed to effectively combat ISIS and threatens further violence.
The internal political landscape in Syria is far more complicated than in Iraq, where the coalition at least has a legitimate government to deal with.
The most critical factor is the involvement of Turkey, which seeks to exploit the anarchy besetting its neighbours to expand its influence, but adamantly opposes Kurdish forces in Syria, currently the Americans’ most reliable military ally there.
The United States wants the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has scored several battlefield successes in recent months, to head the push on Raqqa, but cannot afford to alienate NATO-member Turkey, which invaded northern Syria in August to counter SDF advances.
Ankara, which fears the emergence of a Kurdish state on its southern border, insists it should be militarily involved in the Raqqa operation.
“The only force capable of any near-term gains are the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Townsend observed. “So we’re negotiating, we’re planning, we’re having talks with Turkey and we’re going to take this in steps.”