Obama eyes a big win in Raqqa

Sunday 29/05/2016

Eight months before leaving the White House, US President Barack Obama is planning to score a major military victory taking the Syrian city of Raqqa, de facto capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate.

When Islamic State (ISIS) leaders declared Raqqa, on the north­ern bank of the Euphrates river, to be the seat of the caliphate established in 2014, they wrongly believed they were on a long-term winning streak.

After over-running Raqqa, the first provincial capital ISIS cap­tured in Syria, and neighbouring oil-rich Deir ez-Zor, they stormed into Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq, bringing the US-trained Iraqi Army to its knees. Affiliate groups emerged in Libya, Egypt, Gaza and Nigeria.

The capture of Raqqa, Syria’s sixth largest city, did wonders for ISIS’s image within the global jihadist community. Nobody expected then that, two years later, ISIS would be facing two sweep­ing defeats within three months — at the ancient city of Palmyra in March and another in Raqqa that could come as early as June.

Since mid-May, ISIS has been evacuating women and children — 300-400 people — from Raqqa; According to sources inside Raqqa, They include the European wives of ISIS jihadists, among them Hayat Boumeddiene, a French woman who fled to Raqqa via Turkey in January after her husband helped carry out a series of terror attacks in Paris.

Under heavy security and in darkness, they left Raqqa in con­voys of buses to Deir ez-Zor.

ISIS expects a major assault by Kurdish militias and Arab tribes­men of the Syrian Democratic Forces at any time. They will have US air support, just as government troops had Russian cover in March when they expelled ISIS from Palmyra.

Food is being rationed in Raqqa and able-bodied men aged 18 and older have been armed and prohib­ited from leaving. All medical leave has been cancelled and doctors are on high alert.

Reinforcements arrived from the countryside around Aleppo for what sources in Raqqa say ISIS believes will be a “decisive battle”. In an audio statement released May 21st, ISIS spokesman Abu Moham­mad al-Adnani acknowledged the dangers but defiantly declared: “Even if we lose Raqqa, we won’t be defeated.”

Militarily, Raqqa should not be a big problem for the attackers. The land is flat, sitting atop a water reservoir. That means ISIS fighters cannot dig tunnels, as they have elsewhere, to avoid air strikes and shellfire, nor can they hide in tall buildings because there aren’t any.

Raqqa’s streets are wide, al­lowing aerial bombing to be more precise. The city is surrounded by desert, easily patrolled from the skies.

Obama wants a clean victory in Raqqa, similar to Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin’s capture of Palmyra. Obama and Putin may be coordinating operations in the air but they are not cooperating in the war on terror.

Moscow recently proposed joint action with the Americans via Russian Defence Minister Ser­gei Shoigu. It wants to strike all militias that do not observe the February 27th ceasefire, including ISIS in Raqqa and Jabhat al-Nusra, al- Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which controls the city of Idlib.

On May 20th, the US expressed little interest in that idea but this could change, as it has in the past. The Americans and Russians worked together on the recent lib­eration of Iraq’s Ramadi, with the US Air Force clearing the way for Iraqi troops and Russian warplanes striking reinforcements sent from Raqqa.

It was a big success and was supposed to be repeated in the liberation of Mosul in northern Iraq this summer — until the Russians unilaterally overran Palmyra in March. The Obama administration was unhappy about being passed over on Palmyra, a city that gripped the world’s attention when it fell to ISIS a year ago, partly because of its ancient ruins, some of which ISIS destroyed.

Putin flew in a full Russian orchestra to perform in the desert city’s ancient amphitheatre while he addressed the audience via sat­ellite from his Kremlin office.

The Americans were neither con­sulted nor brought along to share the spoils. If Palmyra did wonders for Putin, Obama seeks the same from Raqqa. Yet when the ego-in­flation stops and the chest-thump­ing ends, both leaders will have to sit back and coordinate strategy on counterterrorism for what remains of Obama’s presidency.

On May 24th, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was willing to coordinate with US proxies in the assault on Raqqa. If that doesn’t happen, whoever replaces Obama in the White House will find the United States compet­ing with Moscow for a military victory and a terrorist defeat.

The anti-terrorism coalition will soon have a giant hole in it, one through which ISIS can drive a truck. Perhaps building on Russian- US competition, ISIS might even retake Palmyra one day or Raqqa.