AKCAKALE, Turkey — The so-called Islamic State is preparing its capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa, for a possible full-scale assault by Kurdish and other guerrilla forces. ISIS, as the group is commonly known, has withdrawn most of its fighters from a string of villages south of a Syrian town they lost quickly and unexpectedly last week to Kurdish fighters. Tal Abayad, on the border with Turkey, which fell on June 15, had been a crucial supply hub for ISIS.
Then, on Monday night Kurdish fighters and their allies captured an ISIS military base 31 miles from Raqqa. The so-called Brigade 93 Base fell with little resistance being put up by the Islamic extremists. Kurdish-led forces also captured the nearby town of Ayn Issa.
The quick military gains have shaken Western military assumptions that pushing back ISIS in its strongholds near Raqqa would take at least weeks and more likely months. Activists with the pro-rebel network the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that ISIS has also shifted substantial reinforcements to Raqqa—up to a hundred vehicles.
But as ISIS fell back north of Raqqa, the terror army also struck elsewhere in northern Syria on Thursday in a series of surprise moves clearly meant to distract the Kurdish fighters and highlight the mobility of ISIS forces.
Offensive moves included launching an attack on the Kurdish border town of Kobani. The city and its outskirts had been free of ISIS fighters for weeks, since the terror army was forced to lift its months-long siege in the face of steadfast Kurdish resistance and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
“It says that only airpower is keeping Kobani safe,” one senior U.S. defense official fretted on ISIS’s move back toward the city.
The ISIS surprise attack started at 5 a.m. and came from three directions inside the city, beginning with a suicide bomb and then a ground attack near the border crossing of Morshed Binar with Turkey. The assault shocked the fighters of the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia that has held up Kobani as a great symbol of its prowess.
Kurdish commanders claimed the ISIS fighters had entered from across Turkey. That is being denied by Turkish officials. Surveillance footage suggests they came from the West and East, with some extremists disguised in YPG uniforms.
ISIS also launched fierce attacks in neighborhoods in the south of the city of al-Hasakah in eastern Syria. “The attacks are clearly designed to take pressure off Raqqa,” says a Syrian rebel commander, Abdul Rahman.
The fallback by ISIS fighters from many villages north of Raqqa gives fighters from the Kurdish YPG and rebel factions fighting alongside them an unimpeded run to the outskirts of the city. This comes less than a year after the ISIS “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the creation of his Islamic State, or caliphate, straddling Syria and Iraq, and urged Muslims to rush to this new supposed heart of the Arab world to help build it.
Now the building—at least in Raqqa—is of defensive lines and bulwarks to protect the city from a possible attack, says Ahmad Abdulkader, an anti-ISIS activist with the network Eye-on-the-Homeland. “There are no ISIS forces of any strength now between the border and Raqqa,” he told The Daily Beast.
Abdulkader, who has debriefed dozens of defectors from the Islamic terror group in southern Turkey in recent weeks, says the ISIS defeats have prompted a plunge in the morale of the terror army’s Syrian fighters, but that foreign recruits remain committed and convinced of their eventual triumph.
One of the explanations for the rapid withdrawal may rest with the airstrikes U.S.-led coalition warplanes have been unleashing on ISIS fighters. The terror army may not be able to afford any significant casualties ahead of a battle for Raqqa.
Kurdish commanders like to argue that while coalition battlefield bombing raids are welcome, they have not provided the crucial advantage for the YPG—they cite fighting spirit and skill as providing their real edge over ISIS. In point of fact, precision American airstrikes have made the difference time and again, clearing a path for Kurdish-led fighters and preventing ISIS from reinforcing its defenders.
The YPG seizure of the military base overnight Monday came after U.S.-led airstrikes pounded the Islamic extremists. ISIS fighters withdrew from the base and did not engage in an extended defense of the facility, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war and relies on local informants.
The intensity of the punishing airstrikes is attested to by dozens of refugees from Tal Abayad who fled to Turkey. They say the bombing raids on their town were terrifying. “We left less because of the fighting between YPG and Daesh [ISIS] and more because of the airstrikes,” says Abdullah, a barber. “We were very scared of the planes.”
Notwithstanding the recent ISIS efforts to stage shocking counter-attacks, the Kurdish-led push deep into ISIS territory has halted the momentum of the Islamic extremists in Syria.
Only last month in the see-sawing conflict ISIS stormed Palmyra, the desert town that contains one of the world’s most important Roman-era heritage sites, grabbing it from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and seemingly readying themselves for an attack on the city of Homs to the West.
The fall of Palmyra came even as, in neighboring Iraq, ISIS seized the city of Ramadi and Iraqi government forces abandoned their positions there, much to the frustration and embarrassment of U.S. officials. The fall to ISIS of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, came despite American airstrikes and a last-minute appeal by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who called on his soldiers to “hold their positions.” (The Kurds cite the fall of Ramadi as proof that ground victories need more than just airpower.)
Aside from the contribution made by airstrikes and Kurdish determination, the quickness of the extremists’ defeat at Tal Abayad may also be partly explained by the diversion of ISIS forces elsewhere in Syria and to Iraq. The group has been pressing an offensive to the northwest of Raqqa in an effort to seize a key border crossing near Azaz held by rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and Islamis brigades hostile to ISIS. That offensive has stalled.
The extremists have been taking serious casualties going all the way back last year to prolonged battle for Kobani, where ISIS made huge sacrifices only to have to retreat in the face of almost suicidal YPG resistance and coalition airstrikes.
Opposition activists have long argued that for all its relentless triumphalist propaganda ISIS is hurting from manpower shortages. They reported in the spring signs of mounting disgruntlement among the terror army’s Syrian fighters, who are were unhappy with the pressure on them to volunteer to fight in Iraq or to shift away from their home districts to fight elsewhere in Syria. A statement issued in April by al-Baghdadi was curiously worded, as he requested rather than instructed his subordinate “emirs” to volunteer their fighters for action in Iraq.
ISIS leaders were using all the means they could to get locals to enlist in the terror army—from cash bounties and threats to outright press-ganging. Now they can ill afford to lose any fighters to airstrikes defending villages to the north of Raqqa, Abdulkader argues.
ISIS also wants to keep civilians in place in Raqqa. Where previously intimidation and terror drove many civilians out of the city, now ISIS is trying to tone things down there. To be sure, ISIS in neighboring Iraq is engaging in appalling executions—killing foes in especially brutal ways and murdering people for ostensible transgressions of its putative moral code—but in Raqqa in recent weeks there has been a dramatic fall-off in the number of public slayings.
Amir Salamah, who served until a month ago as a Red Crescent worker in Raqqa, believes ISIS sees the civilians as a possible protection from airstrikes. “They are not killing the people in the way they were in the pubic squares,” he says. “I think they want people to stay in Raqqa in order to prevent the coalition from targeting Raqqa—they want to use them as human shields.”
So is ISIS all but finished in Raqqa? ISIS has shown a startling ability to wrong-foot opponents and it strikes back in the least-expected places whenever it takes a hit—both to boost the morale of its fighters and to give the sense it remains unbowed even when it does suffer significant reverses. It is also doing its best to sow further discord among its already fractious foes, pitting Kurd against Arab and broadcasting claims that the YPG wants to seize Arab land to expand Syria’s Kurdistan.
So, “finished”? No. “On the defensive”? Yes. And far from the unstoppable force it once seemed.
-- with additional reporting by Nancy A. Youssef