Raqqa Op on Hold: Trump like Putin Refuses More Troops for Syria

The infrastructure for the US-led offensive by Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters to evict ISIS from Raqqa, its Syrian capital, is rapidly taking shape. New bases are springing up in northern Syria and supplies of weapons and armored vehicles pour in from Iraq and Jordan.
Yet no ground forces are heading for the jumping-off points and no starting date has been set. The Kurdish YPG militia designated to spearhead the advance on the ISIS stronghold is taking its time, and the allied nomadic Arab tribes of the Syrian Badiyah, most of them supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are in no hurry to mobilize for action.
Indeed, the Raqqa offensive originally billed for spring 2017 is on hold for the simple reason that President Donald Trump is deeply reluctant to assign the large contingents of US ground troops needed to lead the offensive to success.
And so, the five men destined to manage the operation are still waiting for a decision by the commander in chief: They are: Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, US CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Joseph Votel, and head of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend.
Gen. Townsend touched on the uncertainty when he commented this week: “I certainly hope that the assault on Raqqa is underway by this summer.”
Missing the spring date is a critical shortcoming in a climate and region where summer temperatures may climb up to 52 degrees Celsius.
Military commanders are meanwhile at odds over the number of US troops required for a victorious Raqqa offensive. Estimates range from 15,000 to 50,000. But those figures are academic so long as Trump shows no inclination to assign extra American ground troops to Syria. He seems happy with the spectacular displays of American military strength exhibited this month, i.e. the cruise missile strike on the Syrian Shayrat Air Force Base on April 7, the dropping of the GUB-43/B Mother of all Bombs in Afghanistan on April 14, and the disabling of the North Korean ballistic satellite on April 16.
They all made a big splash, but as far as tactics are concerned, they also had striking drawbacks:
1. None of them had any lasting value without follow-up military operations.
2. They wowed governments and military commanders, but did not impress the terrorist organizations, because even the biggest non-nuclear bomb in America’s arsenal did not reduce the area under their control. To dislodge the Islamists from territory, it is necessary to bring in sizeable ground forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown the same reluctance with regard to committing large-scale Russian forces to the Syrian war. He has stuck to this line ever since he embarked on Russia’s major intervention in Syria in September 2015.
He also accepted its limitations.
When Russian and Syrian forces recaptured Palmyra from ISIS in early March, they refrained from using this momentum to push from central Syria south and east towards Deir ez-Zour in order to relieve the Syrian troops who are trapped by an Islamic State siege. Putin understood large numbers of Russian troops would be needed to break through the ISIS stranglehold – far more than he was willing to commit to Syria.
Some Washington sources were suggesting this week that Trump may temporize on this issue by permitting US elite forces already present in Syria and Iraq and their allies – with a possible small supplement – to go ahead with the operation to capture Raqqa, or parts thereof, and stop there, instead of going forward eastward. He would thus take a leaf out of Putin’s Palmyra book.
But then, on April 17, Trump took an unexpected turn: alone of any Western leader he phoned Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan with congratulations on his wafer-thin win in a poll that granted him sweeping powers. The White House said that, in their phone call, they also discussed the war on Syria, the campaign against the Islamic State and “the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends.”
DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources report that their conversation had nothing to do with Turkish politics and everything to do with the Raqqa offensive. Exactly what was said is revealed in a separate article in this issue.

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