For all the digital ink spilled on terrorism, the battle for Raqqa has gotten far less than it deserves.
After ISIS-directed attacks in France, Turkey, Great Britain, Iran, Egypt, the United States, and so many other places, the walls are closing in on the self-declared caliphate’s capital city, Raqqa. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared on Monday they had taken a second district from the terror group, having launched a full-scale offensive shortly after the bombings in Manchester, England, that targeted a concert of pop singer Ariana Grande. Relentless bombing from the U.S.-led coalition has provided cover for the SDF as they advanced on the city’s eastern suburbs.
The battle for Raqqa has been a long time coming. After years of feckless tossing and turning in a seemingly hopeless search for allies (at one point spending $500 million to train only “4 or 5 fighters”), the United States has settled on the Kurdish-dominated SDF, which has successfully pushed ISIS from along the border with Turkey, one of its key supply conduits, and away from the Euphrates River, the heartland of the self-proclaimed caliphate. Following the successful battle for the Taqbah Dam in March, in which U.S. helicopters air-dropped SDF forces behind ISIS lines, three sides of Raqqa – north, east, and west – were under SDF control. To the south lay the vast Syrian desert.
Among the fighters battling the hardline Sunni supremacists? The women of the Kurdish YPG, according to Tweets from the frontlines.
ISIS for its part was prepared for a showdown. According to an editorial released by their media wing, they would “either..eradicate the infidels or…die trying.”
U.S. and SDF forces seem happy to oblige them.
An editorial by IS's Naba on the Raqqa battle: "We either eradicate the infidels or we die trying, no third option." pic.twitter.com/eXWLjgejng— H Hassan حسن حسن (@hxhassan) June 12, 2017
This battle comes while U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are retaking Mosul, the largest city still under ISIS control. That siege has been on-going since October and has resulted in thousands of dead on both sides.
Raqqa is not nearly so complicated, at least according to fighters on the ground. “I do not think the siege of Raqqa will be as long as Mosul,” said an Arab fighter to The Independent. While Mosul has over a million people, Raqqa’s pre-war population was 300,000. Mosul’s Old City has warrens and sniper traps that Raqqa does not. Moreover, ISIS has used a great deal of firepower trying to hold Mosul, which was always a more prestigious prize. Up to 1,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in Mosul, while the U.S. estimates that up to 60,000 ISIS have been killed since the start of the U.S. campaign against it.
So what happens next?
The collapse of Raqqa will not spell the full end of ISIS, with some speculating that the group will return to its roots as an underground insurgency, while others think that it will go abroad to its franchises in Afghanistan, Libya, or Yemen, much as al-Qaeda did after the collapse of the Taliban in 2001. Few expect that violent Sunni supremacism will end once ISIS loses all its territory. Other failed states in the Muslim world seem likely to become the next base for the group, or for someone like them.
Moreover, while the defeat of ISIS will remove one of the most bloodthirsty factions from the Syrian Civil War, their collapse won’t end the war. Factions run the gamut from the Sunni supremacists of al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra to the Kurdish fighters of the YPG, with Russian and American troops on the ground supporting their favorites. What’s worse, a proxy war between Iran and the U.S. seems in the offing, as U.S. forces fend off attacks by Iranian-backed militia in the country’s far east. The war between Bashar al-Assad, his backers, and his enemies and their backers, will not, in other words, be resolved by the destruction of ISIS. The war has killed up to 400,000 thus far.
[Featured image by Syrian Democratic Forces via AP]