US-Led Forces Gear Up to Take Raqqa. Assad Deals with ISIS to Get There First

The atrocity-ridden Syrian war can always be counted on for surprises.
All of a sudden, Friday, March 5, fierce battles broke out between Jordan-based Syrian rebels and Islamic State forces over the control of the Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian rebels fought under the cover of US air strikes against the jihadists – the first American aerial operation against ground targets since the Syrian ceasefire was declared on Feb. 27.
The rebel offensive took some Middle Eastern military experts monitoring the Syrian war by surprise. Somehow, the anti-Assad force had covered the 300 kilometers from the Jordanian border to Tanf without running into resistance, although ISIS virtually controls eastern Syria.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources account for this by the fact that the force reached the Tanf area by helicopter. They also reveal that the force consisted overwhelmingly of foreign commandos, Jordanian special forces and British elite SAS fighters, and a small number of Syrians.
The Tanf operation had two main objectives:
1. To establish a Special Operations striking base for eastern Syria and western Iraq.
2. To create a vantage point for an offensive to take Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital in Syria, 450 kilometers to the southeast of Tanf. (See our exclusive advanced map)
The participation of US warplanes indicated that the Tanf operation was coordinated from the US Rimelan air base in the Hassake district of northern Syria (first described in DW 698 on Dec. 11 after the base was set up in coordination with the Russians).
It also attested to American resolve to finally launch a major coalition offensive for tightening the noose around Raqqa, preparatory to its capture.
Further steps the US has taken – or is expected to take – for advancing this goal are:
a) The capture of al-Shaddadi, a town located about 144 km east of Raqqa.
b) A push from north to south towards Manibij by Syrian fighters and Turkish commandos, to be launched from Jarablus, the point at which the Euphrates River flows from Turkey into Syria.
Turkey’s integration in this stage of the mission could plug the hole in its border through which the Islamist State maintains its supply lines.
3. US-backed forces holding the Tishrin Dam northwest of Raqqa would join the combined assault on Raqqa from the northwest.
However, preparations for this four-pronged assault on Raqqa in the stages conceived by US military strategists are slow, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources report. Interestingly, the Russians are not making any preparations to reach Raqqa.
But Bashar Assad is not waiting for either coalition to act. Playing a secret game of his own, he appears to have drawn up a scheme with his senior commanders to avoid battling ISIS by letting its forces voluntarily withdraw in orderly fashion from their various Syrian fronts and relocate in Iraq.
In the areas where ISIS forces are under siege, the Syrian army would give them food and medicines until they can be evacuated.
Our sources add that the Syrian ruler is gambling on ISIS responding to his offer by agreeing to leave Raqqa quietly by the end of the year – and no later than early 2017 – and hand the town over to the Syrian army.
Whether Assad has brought the Russians aboard his scheme or plans to catch them by surprise is hard to determine at this point.
Moscow almost certainly knows about it. But it is too soon to say whether the Russians are turning a blind eye and letting it take its course – either to avoid being caught dealing with ISIS – even indirectly, or because they have a vested interest in the Syrian dictator coming out of the war as victor.
Assad’s success in recovering Raqqa from ISIS without a fight, would win him high kudos not just in the Arab world but in America and Iran as well.

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