U.S.-backed Syrian forces launched the long-awaited assault on the Islamic State’s self-styled capital of Raqqa on Tuesday, marking what the Pentagon says will be the beginning of the end of the terrorist group’s hopes for a caliphate in its last major stronghold in the country.
The liberation of the northern Syrian city from three years of Islamic State domination likely will be one of the most brutal fights that the U.S.-backed coalition has faced since the war began in earnest in 2014.
The battle, coming as the U.S. and its allies are trying to clear out the last determined Islamic State resistance in the Iraqi city of Mosul, also will provide a window into the U.S. military’s fighting posture after President Trump vowed to remove what he said were restrictions imposed by the Obama administration in the fight against the Islamic State and other jihadi groups operating in Syria.
But battling Islamic State fighters on the streets of Raqqa may not be the only front for American and coalition forces.
Simmering tensions between the U.S. and Turkey over the Trump administration’s support for Kurdish groups leading the Raqqa fight threaten to boil over at one of the most crucial points in the campaign against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and their Iranian and Russian patrons may try to leverage the fight for Raqqa to expand their control over the war-ravaged country.
Questions also remain over the strategic importance of reclaiming Raqqa. U.S. intelligence reports say nearly all of the group’s key leaders, including Islamic State “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have fled the besieged city for safe havens elsewhere in Syria.
Islamic State-inspired attacks in the United Kingdom, Singapore and elsewhere have raised fears that the terrorist group may turn to attacks in the West as it loses its two main pillars of power in Iraq and Syria.
“Raqqa will be an important step but it will not be the end of the terrorist organization,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Tuesday.
After a long period of preparation, the Raqqa fight began in earnest early Tuesday when elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a collection of Arab and Kurdish militias, launched attacks along the city’s eastern and northern borders, advancing to within 2 miles of the embattled city. Along the city’s western edges, Syrian militiamen cleared territory and set up supply routes into the city.
Marine Corps artillery teams provided cover for SDF fighters making their way toward the city limits, lobbing 155 mm shells onto Islamic State defensive positions. AH-64 Apache attack helicopters also provided cover for SDF fighters and U.S. special operations advisers from the sky, said Capt. Davis.
Arab and Kurdish fighters, and their American advisers, have spent the past several months gaining territory around Raqqa, battling to encircle the city before launching the final assault. The alliance in April seized the strategically important Tabqa Dam, roughly 30 miles west of the Islamic State capital, providing a prime launching point for the push toward Raqqa.
“The international coalition and our partner forces are steadily dismantling the physical caliphate of ISIS,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria, said at the onset of the Raqqa operation.
“There will still be a lot of hard fighting ahead, but this coalition is strong and committed to the complete annihilation of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria,” he said in a command statement.
Questions remain over how quickly the Raqqa fight will last and more crucially what role Turkey, a NATO ally deeply suspicious of the Kurdish militias, will play.
Relations between Ankara and Washington have been icy since June, when American commanders rebuffed a Turkish offer to retake the Islamic State-held Syrian city of Manbij.
U.S. forces liberated the city alongside Kurdish militia groups, some of which Ankara considers terrorist organizations with links to Kurdish separatists who have long operated inside Turkey.
Since then, Turkey has carried out unilateral counterterrorism operations, flushing out Islamic State fighters from a string of northern Syrian cities.
Ankara has bombed Kurdish militia members in Syria tied to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The YPG, which is also a member of the U.S.-backed SDF, is the armed faction of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, praised Mr. Trump for freeing U.S. commanders to carry the fight to the Islamic State but expressed concern Tuesday on Fox News that the heavily Kurdish assault force will have trouble holding the heavily Arab city if and when the Islamic State is defeated.
Pentagon officials insisted Tuesday that Turkey would have a key role in the fight.
Capt. Davis said the timing of the White House decision last month to openly arm Syrian Kurds had no influence on the Raqqa offensive. “This is an operation that is being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, and we are working to enable them,” he said.
With Turkey’s role in the Raqqa fight still in question, coalition commanders are keeping a wary eye on Damascus and the regime of Bashar Assad. Syrian government forces in March began pushing heavily into Islamic State-controlled areas in the northern part of the country.
The regime offensive on Deir Hafer, an Islamic State enclave 30 miles east of Aleppo, was the second one carried out by Assad forces against the Islamic State. Government troops, backed by Russian air power, moved on the Islamic State-controlled city of al Bab in February and took control of the main roadways leading from the city into Raqqa.
Those advances, seen as an attempt by Mr. Assad to gain leverage during ongoing peace talks, has complicated American and coalition efforts to maintain order among the various forces battling in Syria.
Terrorist strikes in Western Europe, the Philippines and elsewhere have some analysts saying the fall of Raqqa and Mosul may not be the crushing blow to the Islamic State that many have predicted.
On Tuesday, Capt. Davis challenged the notion that an Islamic State defeat in its Syrian and Iraqi territorial base would be a token victory for the coalition.
“It is not just a symbolic battle but it is part of a broader campaign to liberate all of Syria and Iraq from ISIS control,” Capt. Davis said. “I do not know if I can paint a direct line for you, but we know Raqqa as the capital of the caliphate and used as a place where external operations were planned.”
But the city’s importance as the hub for planning and directing terrorist attacks has diminished in recent weeks.
Aside from issuing general edicts and guidelines on how Islamic State forces should defend their territory, al-Baghdadi and his closest lieutenants “are not exercising any tactical influence” in either fight, a U.S. defense official said last month. The Islamic State leader and his inner circle have likely fled to the group’s safe havens in Deir-el-zour, roughly 90 miles southeast of Raqqa.
If Mosul is any indication, the battle for Raqqa will be long and grinding, The Associated Press reported. Iraqi forces in Mosul have faced stiff resistance in the form of suicide car bombs, rocket attacks and booby-trapped buildings since the campaign began in October. Raqqa is much smaller than Mosul, but even the battles for surrounding towns took weeks to complete.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.