Fight for Raqqa and future of ISIS and Syria

As US-backed Syrian forces launch offensive to retake Raqqa from Isis how important is this step in the broader context of fighting ISIS and what are the biggest obstacles in taking over Raqqa? And What effect may this operation have on the Syrian conflict? Read few comments.

Aron Lund, Fellow, Century Foundation

Taking Raqqa would be an important step in weakening the hold of the Islamic State on eastern Syria, and depriving it of the ability to govern territory like a state, or a caliphate, which is what it aspires to do. The obstacles are of course many, with jihadi resistance in the city being the worst of them. They have had years to prepare for an attack. However, the attacking forces seem vastly superior and they have the U.S. Air Force – and a bunch of other air forces – on their side. The Islamic State has reportedly already moved some of its commanders and administrators south, toward the area around Mayadeen and the lower Euphrates region between Deir al-Zor and the Iraqi border.

Taking Raqqa would strengthen the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and its Kurdish subgroups, which are closely aligned with the PKK. This will provoke Turkey and could prompt a Turkish response of some sort, not in support of the Islamic State but in order to weaken PKK-aligned factions in Syria. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is also wary of the growing U.S. role in the east of the country, and may seek to subvert the Syrian Democratic Forces’ hold on Raqqa in some way. We will see. It depends on if, when, and how the city is taken.

Wayne White, Scholar, Middle East InstitutePolicy Expert, Washington’s Middle East Policy Council

The fall of Raqqa (reportedly abandoned by many civilians, but still held by possibly 3,000 ISIS fighters) would be a devastating blow to ISIS.  Already most everything ISIS held in Iraq is gone, with Mosul about 2/3’s reconquered by Iraqi forces.  Raqqa’s fall would nearly cut ISIS’s Syrian holdings in half, along with the loss of their symbolic “Caliphate” capital.  Aside from several thousand ISIS fighters, built up areas of Raqqa will be a tough job for US-backed SDF forces.    Perhaps, however, Turkey will remain the biggest challenge.  The Turks have objected to an SDF capture of Raqqa since last year.  They are angry the US is going forward now, and especially that the US distributed a significant amount of arms to the Kurdish YPG-led SDF shortly before the current offensive, fearing hostile YPG Kurds could eventually turn them against the Turks.  In a worst case scenario, an already disturbingly less democratic and less pro-Western Erdogan government could suspend American use of the key Incirlik Air Force Base in eastern Turkey from which to fly strikes against ISIS.

Another impact the fall of Raqqa could have is to begin a Syrian regime forces effort to lunge out farther eastward against ISIS to deny the territory to US-backed and anti-regime rebel forces.  Finally, it could trigger efforts on the part of significant numbers of surviving ISIS fanatics to mount a new challenge:  an effort to break out of the remains of the caliphate to various havens abroad through less well defended Jordanian and Saudi borders to the south.  The reinforcement of these borders must be given the highest priority.

Thomas Pierret, Senior Lecturer, University of Edinburgh

The capture of Raqqa would be a major turning point in the war, considering that the city is ISIS’ de facto capital and the only major city they fully control in Syria (they control parts of Deir ez-Zor only). This is all the more important that ISIS is also about to lose Mosul in Iraq. The immediate consequence of the loss of Raqqa would probably be a concentration of ISIS’ efforts on capturing the parts of Deir ez-Zor they don’t already control (but the Syrian regime is also ramping up its efforts to break the siege of its garrison in Deir ez-Zor, and from there to retake the city.

The main obstacle will be the considerable losses that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are likely to incur in the face of ISIS’ resistance in the city. Fierce resistance by ISIS would also translate into more civilian casualties.

Effect on the Syrian conflict: the retreat of ISIS creates a void that three parties (the SDF, the regime, and the rebels supported by Turkey in the north and Jordan and the US in the south) are trying to fill. Tensions between these parties will increase accordingly, as illustrated by yesterday’s US airstrike against pro-regime forces in the south, for the second time in less than a month.




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