The day after the battle for Syrian city of Raqqa
Beirut - The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a powerful Kurdish-dominated militia, claims that their big advance on Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State’s steadily shrinking caliphate, will begin in April.
The advance is likely to result in a bloody fight but the city of about 200,000 people in northern Syria will no doubt fall during the US-led campaign, which is expected to include round-the-clock air strikes by the Americans and their allies and significant ground support by US Marines and special forces.
Hundreds of US troops with heavy artillery and armoured vehicles have been moved into position, with many more likely to follow.
Represented in their ranks are several hundred US Army Rangers who were redeployed from Iraqi Kurdistan. These elite troops have been used before for sensitive operations in Baghdad, Mosul and Kabul.
The Rangers will play a key role in pushing the Islamic State (ISIS) out of the Euphrates River city, its last major urban stronghold in Syria, in a battle that is likely to change the dynamics of Syria’s 7-year-old conflict and mark a turning point in the global war on terror.
The multipronged assault on Raqqa is set to begin at the same time US-backed Iraqi government forces are tightening the noose around hardened ISIS fighters in Mosul, ISIS’s last citadel in Iraq, where a drawn-out battle has advanced street by street and house by house for the last six months.
Militarily, Raqqa presents less of a challenge than the ancient city of Mosul with its narrow streets. Raqqa’s thoroughfares are wide and its buildings are low — usually only three of four storeys — making them easier targets for air strikes and more accessible to armoured vehicles.
The city also lies atop a reservoir of water created by the Euphrates, making it impossible for ISIS fighters to replicate the labyrinth of underground tunnels they built in Mosul, which proved extremely difficult for opposing forces to overcome.
Raqqa is surrounded by the SDF and the forthcoming battle is being fully coordinated by the Americans and Russians, who control the skies over Raqqa.
Moscow hopes that SDF fighters will hand Raqqa to the Syrian Army once they conquer it — just as they did with the strategic city of Manbij, 30km west of the Euphrates.
Manbij was overrun by SDF forces in August and delivered to the Syrians in March, much to the displeasure of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has insisted his forces control Syrian territory along Turkey’s southern border.
Rather than having Manbij fall into Kurdish hands, Erdogan wanted to incorporate the city into a cordon sanitaire to shield Turkey’s borders from ISIS and prevent a Syrian Kurdish statelet from emerging on territory he has designated as the site for millions of Syrian refugees to be relocated. Some of the refugees have lived in Turkey since 2011. In Raqqa, Erdogan wanted his own men to secure liberation.
More than 5,000 Turkish-backed irregulars have been preparing for the Raqqa offensive and are awaiting orders to join the assault.
If not in taking Raqqa, Erdogan hopes that the United States will turn to him for help in maintaining control over the strategic city, given the fact that US forces cannot stay to help manage the aftermath and a Kurdish presence would not be tolerated by Raqqa’s Arab tribes.
Syria expert Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who runs the influential Syriacomment.com website, said: “Government forces are the only Arab forces capable of ruling and administering the Euphrates Valley.
“If the US wants to destroy ISIS quickly, it will have to allow eastern Syria to be divided up between the Syrian Army and Kurdish-led forces — that is unless the United States wants to impose a mandate itself over east Syria.
“Some think-tanks in Washington have proposed the ‘mandate’ idea, some calling it a ‘safe zone’ or ‘federalism’, so the idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.
“But [US President Donald] Trump is unlikely to want to take ownership of Syria, which means that the Kurds and the central government forces will have to come to terms and govern together.”
Until they do that, ISIS is preparing for the worst in Raqqa. All able-bodied men over the age of 18 have been banned from leaving the city and have been given arms to take part in the coming battle.
The self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has reportedly fled his headquarters in Mosul and is said to be on his way to Raqqa to lead his troops in the battle ahead, which could be his last in Syria.
The SDF said Raqqa will be liberated in a matter of weeks, no later than late May.
After the initial victory, however, another, more divisive battle is likely to erupt over who will control the city, which could block any move towards a peace settlement.
The upcoming scramble underlines the mind-numbing complexity of the Syrian war, where sectarian and ideological enmities of Syria’s diverse forces and the rivalries of outside powers that support them — primarily Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia — comprise the very requisites for an ISIS revival.