While the media focus on the battle to drive ISIS from the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the most critical drive to crush the caliphate is happening in Syria. Right now.
Syrian Kurds and Sunni tribal fighters — helped by U.S. special forces — are laying the groundwork for retaking the caliphate’s capital in Raqqa. I was in northern Syria in March and talked to Syrian Kurdish leaders about these efforts, which are heating up north of the city.
This week, I heard the latest details from Saleh Muslim, a top political leader of the Syrian Kurds. He spoke by phone from Kobani, a city that Kurdish fighters retook from ISIS in early 2015 after an epic battle supported by U.S. air power. He stressed how important the efforts of the 300 U.S. special forces are and what still must be done to ensure that Raqqa falls.
“Now the fighting is only for north Raqqa,” says Muslim, a burly man with a large mustache. “That means laying siege to the city and cutting the supply lines. There are a lot of mines, so it means going patiently, not so quickly. I don’t know if it will be soon.”
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The key to the timing will be how many Sunni Arabs can be persuaded to join Kurdish fighters in an umbrella group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a joint Arab-Kurdish force that is still heavily Kurdish.
The Arab fighters are vital because Raqqa’s population is heavily Sunni Arab and might resist being liberated by Kurdish fighters. “We (Kurds) don’t want to show ourselves as occupiers, we want to depend on local forces,” said Muslim. The locals will be needed both as fighters and as administrators of the city after ISIS is defeated.
“Recently, we’ve heard a lot of Arabs have joined, so maybe there are enough for north Raqqa,” he added. But there aren’t yet enough Sunni Arab fighters in the SDF for the taking of Raqqa, he told me.
Here is where U.S. policy and the role of the special forces become key.
Let me first explain why the battle for Raqqa is so vital and why U.S. policy toward the Syrian Kurds must be clarified in order to crush the jihadi base.
Although ISIS is being pushed back in Iraq, Iraqi forces are still a long, long way from being able to retake Mosul, ISIS’ other major stronghold in northern Iraq, which is much larger than Raqqa. Sectarian conflicts inside Iraq, exacerbated by neighboring Iran, are far deeper than in Syria and make defeating ISIS more difficult.
So the liberation of Mosul won’t happen soon, certainly not in 2016. Meanwhile, it is possible to imagine how Raqqa could fall much sooner, with a cataclysmic impact on ISIS. That’s because Raqqa is the theological capital of the caliphate, where its leadership is based, along with the bulk of foreign fighters. Its demise would deal a crippling blow to the ISIS story line of building a transnational Islamic state.
But first, as Muslim noted, more Sunni fighters are needed.
I asked whether the Syrian Kurds would want Raqqa to be part of their self-declared federal state of Rojava. This would probably be hard for Sunni Arabs to swallow.
“The people of Raqqa should decide,” Muslim told me in a previous interview. “We are not trying to make them part of our federal state.” He said that the city and surrounding villages should elect local councils that would make that decision.
However, he added that the Kurds would require local councils “that are not enemies of the Kurds and would not produce a new ISIS. Only then would we feel safe.”
Skeptics note that there have been reports of revenge against Sunni Arab villages retaken from ISIS by Syrian Kurds. Muslim claims these stories were spread by ISIS supporters who fled to Turkey. He insists that Syrian Kurds don’t have the same bitter feelings toward Sunni Arabs as Iraqi Kurds, who recall the genocidal Anfal campaign against them by Saddam Hussein.
“We never had an Anfal,” Muslim said.
The bottom line: The battle for Raqqa has far better potential for success than the battle for Mosul — if U.S. special forces can help organize more Sunni fighters and ease the way for a post-ISIS transition. The recent surprise visit to northern Syria by the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, to meet with the SDF indicates that the U.S. military understands this.
But before any assault on Raqqa, the Obama administration would need to clarify its policy toward the Kurds of Syria, which has been hampered by fear of angering Turkey. Engaged in civil war with its own Kurdish rebels, Ankara tries to undercut help for Syrian Kurds, even for a Raqqa offensive.
Only if Syrian Kurds, and their Arab partners, are clearly convinced that Washington is serious about retaking Raqqa can this campaign succeed.