In the past day, residents of Raqqa have posted photos of the warnings on Twitter, saying they were airdropped on leaflets by the U.S.-led coalition. The defense officials were the first to confirm that the coalition had indeed issued the warnings.
“The time….has arrived. It’s time to leave Raqqa,” one of the ominous leaflets read. Images portray residents fleeing the black-and-white world of ISIS for the color of freedom, urging citizens to flee toward colors.
There is just one problem: There is no imminent ground or air attack, at least by the U.S.-led coalition. Rather the coalition appears to be the midst of a psychological offensive.
“It’s part of our mess-with-them campaign,” a Pentagon official explained to The Daily Beast.
The leaflets come amid what appears to be something of a panic within ISIS about how long it can maintain its grip on Raqqa. In recent weeks, there were reports that ISIS had declared a state of emergency in Raqqa. And earlier this week, the terror group’s leadership reportedly would not let fighters leave for holiday as ISIS dug trenches around Raqqa, moved headquarters underground, and put coverings over homes in an effort to deflect drone attacks.
Leafleting campaigns are hardly a new tactic by the U.S. military. But this appears to be the first time the U.S. has dropped them during the war against ISIS to issue possibly-inaccurate threats, an exploitation of growing paranoia within the terror group.
ISIS’s fears appear to have been spurred by the Kurdish rebel forces known as the Peoples Protection Units, or YPG, as they march southwest toward Raqqa. As far back as February, some on the ground believed that the YPG, joined by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, could be strong enough to move on Raqqa.
The confidence in the Kurds is a marked change from as recently January. Many believed then that the Kurds would not be interested in fighting for or taking over the Arab–controlled Raqqa. But the rebel group’s wins over cities that run along Raqqa’s supply routes, like al Shaddadi, buoyed hopes that the Kurdish-dominated forces would be willing to move on Raqqa next.
If that were to happen, Raqqa would be part a potential Kurdish autonomous state in Syria.
Either way, ISIS’s paranoia—coupled with a growing belief that local forces might have the ability to move on Raqqa—has upended the longstanding presumption that ISIS’s Iraq capital of Mosul would fall first. The U.S. military has dedicated roughly 1,000 of the 5,000-plus American troops stationed in Iraq to training a local army to retake Mosul.
But the Iraqis are far from ready to take back their second-largest city. U.S. defense officials believe that such an offensive would be a year away, at best.
The YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces likely could move faster than that.
The fall of Raqqa could be mark the end of ISIS as a quasi-jihadist state as the city serves as the group’s headquarters and main capital. It is where its leaders live and its hostages have been held for months at a time. The group has controlled the city for more than two years, and its fall from Syrian Army control to the terror group marked the official rise of ISIS.