As the world remains focused on the unprecedented emotional rollercoaster that the US presidential election has become, a U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian, Kurdish and Arab armed groups launched an operation to retake the northern city of Raqa, the capital of Islamic State in Syria. The new offensive ratchets up pressure on Islamic State at a critical moment, with its fighters already battling an assault by Iraqi security forces on their remaining Iraqi stronghold in the northern city of Mosul.
The start of the assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) came as Iraqi forces fought inside Mosul for the third day running amid fierce jihadist resistance. The two cities are the last major urban centres under IS control after the jihadists suffered a string of territorial losses in Iraq and Syria over the past year.
As AFP notes, the US-led coalition battling IS is backing both assaults, hoping to deal a knockout blow to the self-styled “caliphate” the group declared in mid-2014. SDF commanders announced the start of the operation against Raqa in Ain Issa, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the city. “The major battle to liberate Raqa and its surroundings has begun,” SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said.
Operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” involves some 30,000 fighters and began on Saturday night, Ahmed said.
SDF forces are advancing on three fronts, from Ain Issa and Tal Abyad to the north of Raqa, and from the village of Makman to the east. SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP the operation would proceed in two phases, first seizing areas around Raqa and isolating it, then taking the city itself.
“The fight will not be easy, and will require accurate and careful operations because IS will defend its bastion knowing that the loss of Raqa will mean it is finished in Syria,” Sello said.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in Washington echoed that sentiment: “As in Mosul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead, but it is necessary to end the fiction of ISIL’s caliphate and disrupt the group’s ability to carry out terror attacks against the United States, our allies and our partners,” Carter said, using an alternative name for IS.
An AFP correspondent in Ain Issa Sunday saw dozens of SDF fighters heading on vehicles towards the front line.
Ahmed told AFP in Beirut later that 10 villages and several hamlets had been retaken. The Islamic State said it carried out a suicide car bombing in the Suluk area that killed 14 SDF fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported wounded in the attack but no word of fatalities.
Driving the jihadists from Mosul and Raqa has been the endgame since the US-led coalition launched air strikes against IS in the summer of 2014. The coalition has also provided training and deployed hundreds of advisers to work with Iraqi forces and select Syrian fighters, including the SDF.
Sello said the alliance had received new weapons from the coalition for the Raqa battle, including anti-tank missiles.
Another SDF source said 50 US military advisers would be involved in the operation, particularly to guide air strikes.
After it was seized by IS, Raqa saw some of the jihadists’ worst atrocities, from stonings and beheadings to the trading of sex slaves. Last month, the US defence secretary said the idea of simultaneous operations against Mosul and Raqa “has been part of our planning for quite a while”.
But the battle for Raqa is far more complicated, AP notes.
After five years of civil war, Syria is divided into a patchwork of fiefdoms, with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, IS and a range of opposition forces all holding territory. Dominated by the powerful Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the SDF has in recent months flushed IS out of swathes of territory in northern Syria, including the flashpoint town of Manbij in August.
Washington has promoted the SDF as a key ally in the fight against IS, but the partnership is complicated by Turkey’s fierce opposition to the YPG.
Ankara considers the militia a “terrorist” group, and in August began its own operation inside northern Syria, targeting both IS and the YPG. Sello said Sunday that the SDF had “agreed definitively” with the United States “that there will be no role for Turkey or the armed factions allied with it in the operation” to capture Raqa.
General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, on Sunday visited Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart, but no further details were immediately available.
In Mosul, Iraqi forces were clearing eastern neighbourhoods on Sunday, nearly three weeks into the offensive to retake the city. “Resistance is very heavy and they (IS) have suffered major losses,” Staff Lieutenant General Abdelghani al-Assadi of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service told AFP. Soldiers from the army’s 9th Armoured Division also battled jihadists in a southeastern neighbourhood of Intisar, an AFP correspondent reported.
IS has responded to the Mosul assault with a string of diversionary attacks elsewhere in Iraq, including in Kirkuk and Rutba. It claimed responsibility for suicide bombings on Sunday in Tikrit and Samarra, two cities north of Baghdad, that officials said killed at least 25 people and wounded more than 50.
Aid groups have raised deep concerns for civilians trapped in both Mosul and Raqa, with warnings the jihadists are likely to use them as human shields. More than a million people are believed to be in the Iraqi city. Raqa had a population of some 240,000 before the start of Syria’s civil war and more than 80,000 people have since fled there from other parts of the country.
No matter the outcome of the Raqa, or Mosul, offensives however, a new surge of refugees is expected to sweep over Europe in the coming weeks and months, leading to another surge for ant-immigrant nationalist political parties, and further impairing the establishment status quo in which Turkey remains the gatekeeper – with unprecedented leverage – to European stability.