The US may prove to have been too rushed in its efforts to strike at the heart of the self-declared Islamic State, analysts and experts say.
An American-led coalition and its allies opened a second front against the apocalyptic jihadi group last week, even as fighting was still under way in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
The target of the new offensive is Raqqa, Syria, a city of half a million which since 2014 has served as the administrative capital of ISIS’s so-called caliphate and its center of governance. The city is ISIS’s last real stronghold in Syria, where it hopes to usher in an end-of-days war with Western armies further northwest in the town of Dabiq.
Capturing Raqqa would represent an important symbolic victory for the West and its allies, but it poses a number of logistical challenges that could undermine the offensive – and possibly the fight against ISIS in Mosul, as well.
Military officials and analysts acknowledge that the push on Raqqa is driven by Obama’s desire to stamp out ISIS’s second stronghold before he leaves office on Jan. 20, 2017. But trying to forge a fragile coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters and liberate a city amid a civil war – all on a tighter timeline than the Mosul operation – would be a herculean task, and may set up the Raqqa offensive for failure, analysts warn.
“It looks like Obama wants to wrap up the military campaign [against ISIS] before he leaves office, but unfortunately he hasn’t done nearly enough to address the political aspects of it,” says Kenneth Pollack, former Central Intelligence Agency military analyst and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“In Syria they have simply tied a bow around these rough agreements between the Arabs and the Kurds and the hope is that these guys will refrain from shooting each other until we take Raqqa, get rid of ISIS, and leave,” he says.
The timing for the offensive, according to military officials, is twofold: to disrupt the planning of imminent attacks on the US and its allies, and to prevent ISIS leaders and fighters fleeing Mosul from making a mass migration back over the border into Syria.
According to Brett McGurk, presidential envoy for the coalition against ISIL, the Raqqa offensive will be carried out in “deliberate” phases relying on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by US-led air support and with US special forces in an advisory role.
Lack of partners
In Iraq, the coalition has partners in the Iraqi Army, police, veteran Peshmerga fighters, and Popular Mobilization Units numbering some 100,000 fighters. But in Syria it lacks an established fighting force.
“In Syria the picture is very different – the number of reliable, pro-Western and trusted local actors are limited,” says Ranj Alaaldin, Iraq expert and visiting fellow at Brookings Doha in Qatar.
The SDF is a coalition of 30,000 Kurdish and Arab fighters formed in October 2015. Kurdish fighters make up an estimated 70 to 90 percent of the coalition. This poses a challenge for controlling Raqqa city, whose Sunni Arab inhabitants have centuries of bad blood with their Kurdish neighbors and eye them with suspicion.
“The composition of forces that retake Raqqa city is very critical,” says Genevieve Casagrande, Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
“If you have Kurdish forces clear out Raqqa city, you are going to exacerbate tensions between Arab and Kurdish communities that have been simmering in northern Syria for a long time.”
Coalition officials are mulling proposals that include using Kurdish forces to isolate Raqqa city, while relying solely on Sunni Arab fighters to liberate the city house by house.
Yet if conservative estimates are right, and the number of Arab Sunni fighters in the SDF is indeed as low as 3,000 to 5,000, experts say it will be nearly “impossible” for for Arab fighters to clear, let alone hold, Raqqa.
In addition, Turkey views the coalition's dominant Kurdish faction – the YPG – as a terrorist organization, and remains concerned about Syrian Kurds’ territorial ambitions driving them across the border into Turkey. Although Washington has sought to assuage such concerns, Ankara remains wary of the US’s ability to keep Kurdish fighters in check.
US allies have proposed that Turkey could train and support several thousand Syrian Arab Sunni fighters designated solely for expected urban warfare in Raqqa and counterinsurgency operations once the city is held.
Yet some question the coalition’s timeline, since previous US-backed plans to vet and train Sunni Arab fighters have either failed, or have taken several months to produce a handful of fighters.
Meanwhile, cracks have appeared in the alliance. On Nov. 10, one of the largest Arab contingents of the SDF, the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, withdrew from the Raqqa offensive in protest over the Kurdish YPG’s dominance in the coalition, taking with it an estimated 700 Arab Sunni fighters.
In addition to Arab-Kurdish tensions, serious concerns remain about the US’s ability to lead two major, complex offensives, one in Mosul and the second in Raqqa.
Iraqi government and Peshmerga officials have already voiced concern that US air strikes are not as frequent as needed in the drive for Mosul – and that the Raqqa offensive could stretch US air power even thinner.
The US has a few hundred special forces aiding the fight for Mosul, while no more than 300 are operating in all of northern Syria.
Military officials and analysts acknowledge that to carry out both offensives successfully, Washington would have to increase its military support ranging from aircraft and Apache helicopters to special forces on the ground – something the Obama administration has been hesitant to do.
Actors in Raqqa ranging from Kurdish fighters to ISIS will likely be watching Mosul closely, and be influenced by the way it plays out.
“Mosul will be a very important bellwether for people in Raqqa as the very same problems exist in both,” says Mr. Pollack.