Taking Back Raqqa

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In June 2014, IS declared the city of Raqqa, in Northern Syria, the capital of their caliphate. Since then it has enticed around 7,000 ISIS fighters, and been a base for the terrorist group’s central planning of attacks, including those in the West, such as last November’s massacre in Paris. It is now also a home to many of the 27,000 foreign fighters, mainly from Europe and North Africa, who have been persuaded by slickly produced propaganda to fight for IS.

Coalition forces have now decided it is the right time to liberate Raqqa, and on November 7th Operation ‘Euphrates Anger’ commenced. Leading this operation is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of militias dominated by The People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is a Kurdish unit backed by the US, however there is a slight tension in the fact that they have a non-aggression pact with the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, fighting at the command of President al-Assad, whom the US strongly opposes and has called to resign numerous times.

To make matters more complicated, Turkey, who are also involved in battling IS (but not in Raqqa), oppose the YPG, seeing it as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party. The Turkish President Erdogan went as far as to describe the US- Kurdish coalition as allying with “another terrorist organisation”.  In response, the US has agreed to not supply the SDF with heavy weapons. However despite this, the US see the SDF as the most effective force against IS in Raqqa, and there are currently around 30,000 SDF fighters working on the operation. The US leader of the international anti-ISIS coalition, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, insists that “the facts are these — the only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion”. The strategic and military value of Kurdish forces in the eyes of America has given rise to diplomatic friction with Turkey. Indeed, President Obama spent 2 hours on the phone with Erdogan last month, in an attempt to persuade him of the necessity for the inclusion of Kurdish actors in the struggle against ISIS. This month, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mar Gen Joseph Dunford, has been in Ankara for meetings aimed at soothing Turkish concerns.

The US is aiding the operation through airstrikes, and so far the death of 167 IS militants has been announced since the start of the campaign. This number pales in comparison to the various estimates of civilian casualties as a consequence of American-led airstrikes. Research by organisations including the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Airwars, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Violations Documentation Centre have put the number of civilians killed in US-led air strikes at more than 1,000, while the US itself acknowledges only 55 civilian deaths since 2014.

The plan is firstly to liberate the surrounding countryside, and eventually encircle and isolate the city, which will most likely take months. It has been suggested that Obama wants to wrap up operations against IS before he leaves office in January; however, this will be an onerous task, especially with the present offensive against Mosul, Iraq, simultaneously underway.To add to this pressure is the worry of what will become of Raqqa once IS control is no more. Raqqa is predominantly a Sunni Arab city, and there has been a history of tension between Arab and Kurdish groups in some areas under previous IS control. Turkey fears Kurdish forces using a potential victory in Raqqa to establish a functional Kurdish state on the Turkish border. It remains to be seen whether Turkey will prioritise their commitment to combatting the ISIS threat, or their efforts to prevent Kurdish territorial and organisational gains.

In anticipation of this tension, the US had been trying to train around 2,000 local Arab fighters from Northern Syria, who would in theory complete the final stages of the campaign. Many of them originate from the city of Raqqa but fled after the capture by IS. They will be wearing SDF uniforms and fighting with weapons supplied by the Kurds. Kurdish military officials have recently claimed that their forces will leave Raqqa after it has been liberated, and that a local administration will govern. However, in October of this year the Obama administration announced that the rebel training programme would largely be  terminated, and that the US would instead focus on weapons supply. This shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise, given Obama’s consistently lukewarm attitude towards the risky plan; in a 2014 interview with the New York Times he even went so far as to say that arming a moderate Syrian rebellion and expecting significant results had “always been a fantasy”. Furthermore, the programme purportedly cost $580 million and has had limited tangible benefits, casting aspersions upon the efficaciousness of the President’s war strategy, as well as upsetting those concerned with fiscal parsimony.

It is still early days for the campaign in Raqqa, but is sure to prove important in the war against IS, and no doubt set an example for the rest of Syria.

Emilia Brown