How to take back Raqqa from Islamic State

EPA/STR

An Iraqi man prays at the Al-Noori Al-Kabeer mosque, next to flag used by the Islamic State (IS), in Mosul city, northern Iraq.

How to take back Raqqa from Islamic State


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The United States wants Raqqa, Islamic States’ proclaimed “capital” in Syria to fall sooner rather than later, according to a Reuters blog written by Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst.

This is why US President Barack Obama announced he is deploying Special Operations forces inside Kurdish-controlled regions of Syria. The US recently dropped some 50 tonnes of ammunition for rebel groups in Syria. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s armed People’s Protection Units gathered up most of it. Allied warplanes, and the occasional errant Russian one, pound the city from the skies.

According to Peritz, the coalition will likely run into two big problems if they don’t anticipate and plan for what will happen on the day after the city falls. Taking a city – especially one that has been ruled by a terror group for any length of time – comes with all manner of frightening possibilities, including general mayhem, a humanitarian crisis and a brutal settling of scores at the hands of the liberators.

First, however, expect the fight to be long, bloody and dangerous. A significant ground force could be required to expel Islamic State fighters, who are heavily armed and well-dug in, and then free the city of 200,000 people.

Consider the devastation wrought on the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobani. House-to-house combat was required to keep Islamic State from seizing control of it. In Tikrit, Ramadi and other cities in Iraq, the militants have shown themselves willing to booby-trap vast swaths of territory to stymie efforts by liberating forces.

So, who will free Raqqa?

The answer, according to Peritz, remains unclear because there doesn’t seem to be many interested in carrying out this difficult mission. It doesn’t look like the Kurds are spoiling to take the largely Arab city. The US will not be sending in significant ground forces to do the job. Turkey seems disinclined to send its forces across the border to wage war, particularly given Ankara’s hostility to most Kurdish insurgents. The various groups that make up the Free Syrian Army are far too weak to take on Islamic State directly.

In addition, the coalition fighting against Islamic State is certainly not eager for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers to march back into the city.

So, in reality, there is no ground force being assembled to accomplish this goal, writes Peritz.

But even if IS is expelled from the city, this leads to a second big conundrum: the critical effort of providing an effective government.

Peritz asks the questions: Who would rule Raqqa the day after it is liberated? What would happen to all the displaced people fleeing to or from the city? Recall the city’s tribal elders welcomed the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups a few years ago. But Islamic State pushed all the rebels out when they proved unable or unwilling to govern the city. It is uncertain if any of these political groups can provide the force necessary to keep Islamic State at bay while maintaining law and order in the city.

Without a large stabilising force and an effective system of government that restores some semblance of normal life, the coalition would likely fail to achieve its objectives of liberating Raqqa – or any major slice of Islamic State-held territory – for very long, writes Peritz.

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