Syria: US-backed coalition moves to drive Isis from Raqqa
Analysis: Turkish intervention complicates two-stage offensive by Kurdish-Arab SDF
Syrian Democratic Forces commanders attend a news conference in Ain Issa, Raqqa Governorate. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces coalition has launched a long-awaited offensive to drive Islamic State from its self-proclaimed capital at Raqqa in Syria. This operation is meant to open a second front against Islamic State, also known as Isis, doubling the challenge mounted by the Iraqi army’s advance on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
“The major battle to liberate Raqqa and its surroundings has begun,” proclaimed Jihad Shaikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Kurdish-Arab alliance as forces began their two-stage offensive, dubbed “The Wrath of the Euphrates”, from locations 50km north of Raqqa.
The first phase involves the capture of countryside around Raqqa, cutting it off from supplies and reinforcements from Turkey, while the second will be the assault on Islamic State forces in the city. The Islamists seized control of the city from Jabhat al-Nusra and units of the Free Syrian Army in January 2014. Before it fell to those groups, Raqqa had 220,000 residents and hosted tens of thousands of displaced Syrians.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, numbering 30,000 trained fighters, have been reluctant to mount this offensive against Raqqa, an Arab city, as 20,000-25,000 are Kurdish militiamen belonging to the People’s Protection Units. The US, however, has done its utmost to give non-Kurdish “cover” for the operation by recruiting and training Arab tribesmen and townsmen, Assyrian and Armenian Christian militiamen, Turkmen (ethnic Turkish) and Circassian (Caucasian) fighters.
The US has deployed special forces with these units and provided anti-tank weapons, armour, and other equipment as well as air support.
The Democratic Forces appear to have the advantage. Their numbers exceed the preferred three-to-one ratio of attackers to defenders. Some 5,000 Islamic State fighters are said to be based in Raqqa, but this number may have swelled in recent weeks with the arrival of jihadis fleeing Mosul.
Washington has had to assure the Kurds that Turkey and its surrogate Syrian factions will not be involved in the offensive. While battling its own restive Kurds, Ankara has repeatedly bombed and shelled Syrian Kurdish units, also regarded as “terrorists” by Turkey. The Kurds hold a broad strip of Syrian territory south of the Turkish border.
As the Raqqa offensive began, Turkish-sponsored groups were preparing to intervene by moving against Islamic State-held al-Bab, a strategic Syrian town 30km south of the Turkish border. Turkey’s allies entered Syria in August and seized from Islamic State the towns of Jarablus and al-Rai, staking a claim to a role in the battle for Raqqa.
Turkish troops based at Bashiqa near Mosul are also poised to interfere in that campaign despite Baghdad’s strong objections.
The offensive against Raqqa coincides with the end of the Russian ceasefire in the campaign against insurgents in eastern Aleppo, 170km from Raqqa, the resumption of raids conducted by government aircraft, and marshalling of ground forces, including reinforcements from Iran, to mount a fresh assault on eastern districts where 150,000-175,000 civilians remain.
The situation in Syria is seriously complicated by multiple conflicts pitting Damascus and its allies – Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah – against foreign-backed insurgents. They include al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra and a host of jihadi factions in eastern Aleppo, the northwestern province of Idlib and pockets of territory across the country.
Since the Kurds have been accused of “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs in territory they hold, it is not clear who would take control in Raqqa if and when Islamic State is expelled.
While Damascus’s allies seek to preserve the government, the US, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar remain determined to use proxies to topple president Bashar al-Assad although this could fracture Syria into fiefdoms presided over by jihadi warlords.