October 30, 2016

The coming assault on al-Raqqah - a political minefield

Al-Raqqah, Syria (click for larger view)

According to the senior U.S. commander leading the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an attack on the group's main stronghold in the Syrian city of al-Raqqah may start soon.

The timing, according to U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, is being driven by planning and potential execution of terror attacks against Western targets emanating from the ISIS "capital" and main operations center. The general did not name a specific threat or target.

The announcement comes just weeks after the kickoff of the Iraqi offensive to recapture the city of al-Mawsil (Mosul) from ISIS, who seized the city from Iraqi forces in June 2014. That offensive will possibly take months - the lead Iraqi forces have just reached the city limits.

The original U.S.-led coalition plan - developed jointly with the Iraqi military - was to have Iraqi forces first surround Mosul, then press the attack and eradicate ISIS in Iraq. In my opinion, the Iraqis launched the attack prematurely, since there are still pockets of ISIS control outside of Mosul. For my analysis on the Iraqi plan, see my earlier article, The Iraqi operation to retake Mosul - are they ready?

The current operation against Mosul in Iraq has been expected for some time - Iraqi officials have claimed that the city will be back under Iraqi government control by the end of this year. I hope they are right, but I think they may be overly optimistic.

Likewise, it is no secret that at some point, ISIS must also be removed from its main operations center in al-Raqqah, Syria. One only need look at a situation map of the fighting in Syria to see that ISIS is being pushed back toward al-Raqqah.

The group is under pressure from U.S.-led air operations, the very effective Syrian Kurdish forces (the YPG), the U.S.-supported and advised Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a joint Syrian Arab and Syrian Kurd armed group), and recently the Turkish supported (air, armor and artillery) Free Syrian Army (FSA) operating northeast of Aleppo. To be fair, there is the infrequent Russian air operation against ISIS, but only in support of Syrian Army operations.

The Turkish-supported FSA operation in northern Syria, called Operation Euphrates Shield, has sealed off the remaining section of the Syrian-Turkish border from ISIS access. The rest of the Syrian-Turkish border is controlled by the YPG, much to Ankara's displeasure. The Euphrates Shield forces have been effective in pushing ISIS south and east, but the FSA fighters are still almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah.

That distance becomes important as the U.S.-led coalition begins planning on just how the fight against ISIS in Syria will be executed. This is a political minefield, not just for the coalition, but for all of the different interested parties in Syria. I find it interesting that the senior American commander is talking about the attack on al-Raqqah, yet represents a country who refuses to commit its ground troops to the fight. That, however, is a topic for another day.

As in Iraq, all parties are committed to the destruction and/or eradication of ISIS. However, in Iraq, all of the parties are more or less allied in that fight. There are differences between the United States and the Iranian-backed Shi'a militias to be sure, but they are nonetheless of common purpose.

In Syria, there are at least five anti-ISIS factions, some of which are engaged in combat operations against each other. Let's take a look at the sides in this multifaceted conflict.

* First, there is the Syrian government and its allies. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is supported politically by Russia, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. Military support is provided by the Russian armed forces, primarily through airpower, as well as ground forces from the Iranian Army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi'a militias, and a group of Afghan Shi'a fighters.

These allies effectively double the size of what remains of the Syrian Army. The Syrian military has been severely crippled by losses and defections to the point that without this external assistance, it would cease to be a viable force.

* Second, we have the FSA, now supported by the Turkish military. One might question Turkey's motives in its participation in Operation Euphrates Shield. Although the stated reason is to fight ISIS - and they are doing that - many believe it is to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not create some form of autonomous region in northern Syria as they have in Iraq, or worst case, attempt to merge the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas into one political entity.

Turkey's prime minister has made the claim that the Turkish Army will mount the attack on al-Raqqah, rather than allow the Syrian Kurds to do it. The problem with that: the Turks and FSA are 100 miles from al-Raqqah, while the Kurds are only 35 miles from the city.

* The third faction is the Kurdish militia called the YPG - arguably the most effective fighters arrayed against ISIS. As noted, Turkey is upset over American support for the YPG. The Turks regard the Kurdish militia as an extension of the Kurdish Workers' Party (more commonly known by its Kurdish initials, PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and NATO.

Given the proximity of YPG forces to al-Raqqah, LTG Townsend has stated that they will be involved in the military operation, with the added caveat that he wants only Arab forces to enter and retake the city itself. This is similar to the effort in Mosul, where Iraqi Arabs are supposed to be the only units to actually enter the city, with the Kurds outside to provide support. I don't think it will work in either Mosul or al-Raqqah - the Kurds represent a much-needed military capability.

* Fourth, there is the U.S.-supported SDF. These forces are a combination of Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs who are committed to fighting ISIS. They are funded and equipped by the United States, and have American special operations forces embedded to "advise and assist." These units have been effective in conducting operations against ISIS in eastern and northeastern Syria, with dedicated U.S.-led coalition air support. They will likely be a key part of any assault on al-Raqqah.

* Fifth, there are anti-regime Islamist groups not affiliated with the FSA or SDF. These include, among others, the former al-Qa'idah affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front) now calling itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, the Levant Conquest Front).

The relationships of these factions vary between temporary tactical alliances to outright hostilities. While they are all anti-ISIS, they are not united in their efforts. As I said, Syria is a political minefield with no one entity in charge or coordinating the overall situation in the country.

The situation in Syria is confusing and chaotic - it will decrease the effectiveness of any military operation against ISIS in al-Raqqah. Although ISIS will be defeated, the political minefield that is Syria will remain.