U.S. role in the fight to oust ISIS from Raqqa raises questions about what will follow victory

Borzou Daragahi reports: The Trump administration has dramatically increased US military and political involvement in northern Syria, providing air and ground support to local forces camped out in abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Raqqa as they seek to oust ISIS from the capital of its self-declared caliphate.

Under President Donald Trump, the US-led coalition has developed closer coordination with a collection of militias and tribes called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), directing air and ground assaults. Senior State Department and USAID officials have visited Raqqa’s outskirts to coordinate efforts to help displaced civilians and secure the city’s future once ISIS is driven out. US officials have also carved out a semipermanent diplomatic presence close to the northern Syrian city of Kobane.

US and other Western security officials grill captured ISIS fighters, most of them held at a prison near Kobane, to glean intelligence on the jihadis, their future plans, and their ties to other fighters in the Middle East and the West, according to SDF fighters and Kurdish intelligence officials, as well as a former US military official. The efforts have made Trump popular among many of Syria’s autonomy-minded Kurds, with some praising him as a patron of their project to build a self-ruled enclave.

The ground war, launched late last year with skirmishes on the outskirts of Raqqa before reaching the city in early June, has become a grueling street battle, with tens of thousands of Syrian militiamen approaching from the east, west, and south. Each day, the SDF — a multiethnic, multireligious collection force mostly led by Kurdish commanders — struggles to force its way into the city, while US-led coalition planes circle overhead and laser-guided howitzer artillery guns manned by Marines stand ready. The SDF is strongly under the sway of the YPG, a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a fact that creates huge tensions with the US’s NATO partner Turkey and may precipitate a raft of political problems once ISIS is defeated. But for now the SDF’s fighters are Washington’s best allies in northern Syria, risking their lives under extreme conditions in the slow, brutal effort to take Raqqa.

ISIS has controlled Raqqa for more than three years, building a network of tunnels, secret passages, and fortified positions. Field commanders say the fight isn’t just house to house, it’s often room to room. There is Raqqa, and then a second Raqqa hidden underground and in the cracks, said one commander who described a 14-hour battle just to get to the second floor of a building after taking control of the first floor. Unlike Iraqi troops operating in the recently liberated city of Mosul, few if any of the SDF fighters have body armor. [Continue reading…]

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