March 23, 2017

Syrian Democratic Forces assault on al-Tabaqah - opening shots in the liberation of al-Raqqah

SDF armored vehicle on south bank of Euphrates River

The opening shots in the battle to liberate the Syrian city of al-Raqqah from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may have been fired yesterday (March 22).

The daring assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by U.S. airlift, airpower, intelligence, and long-range rocket artillery was removed from the headlines by an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in London, and the continuing saga of American political maneuverings.

For the first time in the U.S-led coalition fight against ISIS, American heavy transport helicopters moved hundreds of SDF troops from their positions north of the Euphrates River south to locations across the river behind ISIS lines, a classic American air assault tactic.

This operation also marked the first use in Syria of the U.S. Marines' M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). The Marines, recently deployed to Syria via neighboring Iraq, fired long-range (up to 180 miles) guided artillery rockets in support of the air assault operation.

At the same time, other SDF units ferried heavy vehicles across Lake al-Asad, the reservoir created by one of the objectives of the operation, the al-Tabaqah Dam, the largest dam in Syria. The dam is a mere 25 miles west of ISIS's self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah.

Red=regime / Green=FSA / Brown=ISIS / Yellow=SDF
(Click image for larger view)

The initial focus of the U.S.-supported SDF operation was the Shurfah peninsula, about 10 miles west of al-Tabaqah city, dam, and airport. All three are occupied by ISIS and will be aggressively defended. Not only is the SDF attack putting pressure on ISIS, Syrian regime units just 25 miles to the west are also fighting the Islamist group.

After moving north and marginalizing the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army elements moving south from the Turkish border towards al-Raqqah - but still 100 miles away - the Syrians are cooperating with the SDF to focus the fight on ISIS. (See my earlier article, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?)

The Syrian Army, with Russian airpower and support, has made good progress at forcing ISIS to retreat. These regime units have now reached the Euphrates from the west and are now poised to move east toward al-Raqqah. That said, the lead elements of the Syrian Army are still well over 60 road miles from al-Raqqah.

I assess that the SDF will move out of the Shurfah Peninsula beachhead as soon as possible to secure the al-Tabaqah dam, air base, and most of the city. Sitting on the peninsula will only invite an ISIS counterattack. ISIS has a history of mounting vicious counterattacks as soon as they are able to absorb an initial assault and regroup their forces.

There will likely be a supporting attack on the dam area from the north. It will be a tough fight for the SDF to take these objectives, but with American airpower and long-range artillery rocket support, they eventually will prevail.

Red=regime / Green=FSA / Brown=ISIS / Yellow=SDF
(Click image for larger view)

After seizing the objectives in the al-Tabaqah area, I expect the SDF forces to pivot to the east and continue to move against ISIS along the south bank of the Euphrates in the direction of al-Raqqah.

At the same time, about 35 miles to the east of al-Raqqah, additional SDF elements have successfully attacked south to the Euphrates. This accomplished two major objectives. First, it cut the main supply route between ISIS forces in al-Raqqah and its forces further east along the Euphrates River near the city of Dayr al-Zawr, and further east to the now-isolated Iraqi city of Mosul.

Second, it provides an opportunity for an additional crossing of the Euphrates to establish a second beachhead on the southern bank of the river. If SDF forces can successfully mount such an assault, they will be able to move west towards al-Raqqah while their counterparts are moving from the west, eventually surrounding and isolating the self-proclaimed ISIS capital.

Once the pocket is closed, it can be besieged - the SDF will be able to mount a multi-axis attack on al-Raqqah, eventually defeating ISIS in the city.

The fight for al-Raqqah will be reminiscent of the fighting in Mosul - it will take months. ISIS has had well over two years to fortify the city for the fight all knew would come someday.

It would appear that day is fast approaching.