Final battle for ISIS’s ‘capital’ looms but won’t end the carnage

Sunday 07/05/2017
Battled-hardened. A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter poses near the Euphrates River, north of Raqqa city, last March. (Reuters)

Beirut- The long-anticipated final assault on Raqqa, de facto capital of the steadily crumbling Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate, is loom­ing as US-backed forces steadily isolate it and prepare to storm the heavily fortified city.

The main battle will likely be fierce and costly in a city that Syr­ian rebels captured in March 2013 and proclaimed the first “liberated” provincial capital. ISIS took control of Raqqa in January 2014 and began its reign of terror.

There are an estimated 3,500 militants in Raqqa, along with a shrunken civilian population of about 200,000 held hostage by the jihadists.

Since the first moves to attack Raqqa began in the autumn of 2016, the city has been hammered by US-led air strikes. Raqqa has been gradually cut off by US-led Kurd­ish and Arab fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Amer­icans’ main proxy, that now num­bers 50,000 fighters. They have sev­ered most main roads into the city, blocking food supplies.

The Britain-based Syrian Obser­vatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through a network of activists throughout Syria, and sources inside Raqqa says hun­ger is becoming acute. Much of the city is in ruins, primarily because of the air strikes that began in Septem­ber 2014.

By April, the SDF, backed by US special forces with US Marine Corps artillery units and US Army Rang­ers, had encircled Raqqa on three sides and was within a few kilome­tres of the outskirts.

As its citadels in Syria and Iraq have been stormed one after the other over the last two years ISIS has shown that it fights to the death and gives no quarter. Air strikes and artillery fire have reduced large tracts of those cities to ruins.

The Iraqi military’s battle to re­take Mosul is instructive. It has dragged on into its seventh month and about half the city is still in ISIS’s hands. Iraqi losses have been heavy — an estimated 6,000 dead or wounded — and much of the city has been destroyed.

Raqqa is much smaller than Mo­sul but ISIS’s dogged defence of the Tigris River city suggests that casualties on both sides in Raqqa are likely to be heavy. There is little doubt that Raqqa, like Mosul, will eventually fall, driving ISIS from its last urban strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

The big winner in all of this is like­ly to be the Assad regime, which, af­ter its victory in driving rebels out of Aleppo in December, courtesy of Russia and Iran, controls all of Syr­ia’s major cities.

Whether the Americans will hand control of a reconquered Raqqa to the regime or leave it in the hands of the Kurds, who seek eventual inde­pendence from Damascus, remains unclear.

US President Donald Trump may find it difficult not to deliver the city into Syrian President Bashar Assad’s hands rather than trigger a Kurdish- Turkish war in northern Syria that would likely be the harbinger of Syria’s disappearance as a unitary state.

According to IHS Jane’s Terror­ism and Insurgency Centre, it is As­sad’s forces rather than US-backed ones that are doing most of the fighting against ISIS. The London-based publication reports that about 43% of ISIS’s clashes were against Assad’s forces, while only 17% involved American-supported groups.

Jane’s concludes that if Assad is ousted, the big winner would be ISIS, effectively nullifying jihadists’ looming loss of Mosul and Raqqa.

Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst with IHS, observed: “It is an inconvenient reality that any US action to weaken the Syrian government will inadvertently benefit the Islamic State and other jihadist groups.

“The Syrian government is essen­tially the anvil to the US-led coalition’s hammer. While US-backed forces surround Raqqa, the Islamic State is engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian government around Palmyra and in other parts of Homs and Deir ez-Zor provinces.”

As the noose tightens on Raqqa, the biggest wild card in the arcane Syrian war is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, now that he has been handed immense power in Turkey’s April 16 consti­tutional referendum, might feel emboldened to take military action to prevent Raqqa falling into Kurd­ish hands. If Syria’s Kurds captured Raqqa, Erdogan would see that as a step towards eventual Kurdish statehood.

Preparations for the final assault on Raqqa suffered a potentially seri­ous setback April 25 when Erdogan launched air strikes against Kurdish fighters of the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF, in north-eastern Syria, killing at least 20 men. Ankara said the attacks were aimed at cutting off supply lines to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Work­ers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a separatist insurgency since 1984.

But the strikes were widely seen as Erdogan venting his anger against the YPG, which Turkey sees as the PKK’s Syrian arm.

Turkey opposes the United States using the YPG to spearhead the as­sault on Raqqa, whose population is predominantly Arab, but the Ameri­cans consider the Kurdish fighters to be the most capable and reliable ally they have in Syria and refuse to allow Turkey to pursue its own stra­tegic objectives.

Erdogan has warned there may be more air strikes, indicating a pos­sible clash between the NATO al­lies in yet another of the dangerous twists and ever-shifting alliances for which this war has become notorious.