Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s claim last week that the assault on Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State, was “within weeks” was a surprise to the commanders planning the war, who believe local troops will not enter the city for months, three defense officials told The Daily Beast.
One official told The Daily Beast the attack on the ISIS capital could be six months away.
“The broader question of retaking Raqqa and who does that is still open and we’re gonna continue to discuss that with all of our coalition partners,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, explained to reporters Wednesday.
The local forces needed have not all been identified, their roles have yet to be defined, the weapons and training have yet to be allocated, and the so-called Islamic State has yet to be cut off from supply lines and foreign fighter flows that allow it to build up its defensive measures, officials said.
“Weeks?!” one commander said when he first heard the weeks-long timeline to be within the city limits of Raqqa. “I’ve never heard anyone say that.”
Given all that, the only concrete U.S. plan so far is that in the coming weeks, U.S.-led coalition war planes will turn up strikes on the outskirts of Raqqa, softening the perimeter defenses and signaling to civilians that it’s time to flee, if they can, two senior U.S. military officials told The Daily Beast.
“You don’t necessarily have to have all these issues worked out to continue the isolation phase and advance that,” a senior military official said Wednesday. “Isolation” is a military term of art describing encircling the enemy and cutting them off from escape or resupply.
The forces the U.S. would like to meld together to take Raqqa—Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters and Turkish forces—are at odds with each other politically and sometimes on the battlefield. While the Syrian Arabs are willing to work with the Turkish troops, the Kurds thus far are not, defense officials said. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to describe the planning for the Raqqa assault publicly.
For the U.S., the Kurdish forces known as the YPG have proven the most effective guerilla fighting force in the region, and are partnered with U.S. special operators based in Syria who help the fighters coordinate strikes and plan operations.
The Kurds want to trade their help in taking Raqqa for U.S. support for an eventual homeland. The Turks don’t want the YPG in any Raqqa offensive. And the U.S. wants to defeat ISIS and is looking for viable partners on the ground to lead the assault, even ones that are foes to their NATO ally, Turkey.
Further complicating matters is a possible direct conflict between Turkey and the YPG on the battlefield. Turkey is threatening to enter another Syrian city, al Bab, which currently is under ISIS control, but also part of Kurdish aspirations for an autonomous region in the north that city. The YPG would view an assault on Raqqa as secondary to keeping al-Bab out of Turkish control.
So far, U.S. officials have yet to reach any kind of deal with Turkey and but remain optimistic, albeit less so with each passing day.
“Nobody feels the need to take that off the table,” the official said of Turkey’s offer to take part. “There might be some role.”
Ideally, the Americans want Turkey’s support for the operation on Raqqa, but for now, would settle for their acquiescence to an SDF-led campaign, which to date has not been forthcoming.
“There’s a significant Arab element of the Syrian Defense Forces—a third of them—who would be willing to work with Turks,” the official added.
In addition, the U.S. military hopes to have roughly 6,000 Kurdish YPG troops positioned to cut off ISIS flight from Raqqa, a fourth senior defense official explained to The Daily Beast.
It is all part of what the U.S. military is calling the isolating and shaping campaign of the battle for Raqqa—a process that took eight months before the battle started for Mosul. Raqqa is a smaller city but could have a higher concentration of ISIS fighters.
Carter said that the Raqqa assault would begin within “weeks” and overlap with Mosul one, which appeared to be part of a messaging campaign to suggest ISIS would face a two-front war. Iraqi forces launched an offensive to take back Mosul from ISIS, on Oct. 17. On Wednesday, Iraqi forces entered the eastern edge of the city.
The premature prediction of an imminent Raqqa assault could be more about the Obama administration trying to paint its ISIS fight in the best light during the last few weeks of an election.
“I think that any administration in the last few months in office is going to try to shape their legacy and wrap up things they don’t want to leave to the next administration. It could be that Carter’s statement is linked to that desire,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
But there is a risk with rushing such a campaign, even one that, if successful, would likely mark the demise of the so-called caliphate.
“The hastier your desire to enter, the uglier your allied forces will be,” Gartenstein-Ross explained.
There has already been a months-long U.S.-led coalition airstrike campaign around Raqqa, combined with a ground campaign to seize back towns and villages ISIS once controlled between Raqqa and the Syrian-Turkish border. ISIS operatives used to be able to hopscotch from their defacto capital to Turkey via safe havens it controlled, hiding from air strikes and resupplying along the way, but now there’s a buffer of no-go territory between Raqqa and Turkey, one of the officials said. The daily drumbeat of airstrikes has also cut off ISIS supply routes and oil infrastructure, and has all but destroyed its illicit oil sales, once a top source of ISIS revenue, which brought in $500 million in 2014.
Simultaneously, coalition airstrikes in Iraq have helped drive ISIS out of several Iraqi cities including Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi, and Hit.
In addition, strikes against leadership figures continue, as midlevel leaders expose themselves to coalition targeting as they are forced to move around the battlefield to boost the morale of increasingly embattled ISIS rank and file.