THE US may prove to have been too rushed in its efforts to strike at the heart of the so-called Islamic State (IS), analysts and experts say. An American-led coalition and its allies opened a second front against the apocalyptic jihadi group last week, even as fighting was still under way in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The target of the new offensive is Raqqa, Syria, a city of half a million which since 2014 has served as the administrative capital of IS’s so-called caliphate and its centre of governance. The city is IS’s last real stronghold in Syria, where it hopes to usher in an end-of-days war with Western armies further northwest in the town of Dabiq.
Military officials and analysts acknowledge that the push on Raqqa is driven by Obama’s desire to stamp out IS’s second stronghold before he leaves office on Jan. 20, 2017. But trying to forge a fragile coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters and liberate a city amid a civil war – all on a tighter timeline than the Mosul operation – would be a herculean task, and may set up the Raqqa offensive for failure, analysts warn.
“It looks like Obama wants to wrap up the military campaign against IS before he leaves office, but unfortunately he hasn’t done nearly enough to address the political aspects of it,” says Kenneth Pollack, former Central Intelligence Agency military analyst and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “In Syria they have simply tied a bow around these rough agreements between the Arabs and the Kurds and the hope is that these guys will refrain from shooting each other until we take Raqqa, get rid of IS, and leave,” he says.
The timing for the offensive, according to military officials, is twofold: to disrupt the planning of imminent attacks on the US and its allies, and to prevent IS leaders and fighters fleeing Mosul from making a mass migration back over the border into Syria. According to Brett McGurk, presidential envoy for the coalition against IS, the Raqqa offensive will be carried out in “deliberate” phases relying on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by US-led air support and with US special forces in an advisory role.
The SDF is a coalition of 30,000 Kurdish and Arab fighters formed in October 2015. Kurdish fighters make up an estimated 70 to 90 percent of the coalition. This poses a challenge for controlling Raqqa city, whose Sunni Arab inhabitants have centuries of bad blood with their Kurdish neighbours and eye them with suspicion. “The composition of forces that retake Raqqa city is very critical,” says Genevieve Casagrande, Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “If you have Kurdish forces clear out Raqqa city, you are going to exacerbate tensions between Arab and Kurdish communities that have been simmering in northern Syria for a long time.”
Coalition officials are mulling proposals that include using Kurdish forces to isolate Raqqa city, while relying solely on Sunni Arab fighters to liberate the city house by house. Yet if conservative estimates are right, and the number of Arab Sunni fighters in the SDF is indeed as low as 3,000 to 5,000, experts say it will be nearly “impossible” for Arab fighters to clear, let alone hold, Raqqa. In addition, Turkey views the coalition’s dominant Kurdish faction – the YPG – as a terrorist organisation, and remains concerned about Syrian Kurds’ territorial ambitions driving them across the border into Turkey. Although Washington has sought to assuage such concerns, Ankara remains wary of the US’s ability to keep Kurdish fighters in check.
Military officials and analysts acknowledge that to carry out both offensives successfully, Washington would have to increase its military support ranging from aircraft and Apache helicopters to special forces on the ground – something the Obama administration has been hesitant to do. Actors in Raqqa ranging from Kurdish fighters to IS will likely be watching Mosul closely, and be influenced by the way it plays out. “Mosul will be a very important bellwether for people in Raqqa as the very same problems exist in both,” says Mr. Pollack.
— Courtesy: The CS Monitor