Why Did the Raqqa Offensive Never Take off? For Four Good Reasons
The campaign for the recovery of Syrian Raqqa from the Islamic State’s clutches faced a fresh delay in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s first phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan overnight Tuesday, Feb. 7.
Their wide-ranging call included a decision for the US and Turkey to campaign together against ISIS in Raqqa and Al Bab, the jihadists’ last stronghold in the Aleppo region – but only after a host of obstacles were removed. They also discussed the issue of a safe zone in Syria, the refugee crisis and the fight against terror.
Erdogan made a point of asking the US not to support the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, despite its proven military prowess against ISIS.
The new CIA Director Mike Pompeo arrived in Ankara Thursday, Feb. 9 on the first foreign trip since his appointment for talks with Erdogan and his Turkish counterparts..
On Sunday, Feb. 6, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an army of 45,000 soldiers – most of them Kurds – clamed to have embarked with 13,000 Arab tribesmen on a “new phase” of the operation to root ISIS out of Raqqa. They announced they were aiming to complete the encirclement (of Raqqa) and cut the road to ISIS strongholds in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zour. The SDF statement added that they were backed by air strikes and “several hundred US special forces soldiers on the ground.”
Raqqa is situated on the northern bank of the Euphrates. On Feb. 3, its two bridges were destroyed, six months after all the bridges connecting East Raqqa with the Iraqi border were knocked down.
Most Western intelligence sources discount the claims of a “new phase” in the Raqqa campaign as implausible. And DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources found no evidence to support them.
The plan to encircle Raqqa and cut it off from Deir ez-Zour was first compiled last year by former President Barack Obama’s team of advisers. By the time they had hashed out its operational features and ready to go, it was mid-January and the swearing-in of a new president was just days off.
Obama’s planned campaign for Raqqa was accordingly dropped in the laps of the incoming national security team.
They turned it down; forcing the troops marshaled for the operation to stop in their tracks to await a decision from Washington.
On Jan. 29, President Trump signed an executive order directing the US military to develop a preliminary plan for defeating the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. The order said: “It is the policy of the United States that ISIS be defeated. Within 30 days, a preliminary draft of the plan to defeat ISIS shall be submitted to the president by the secretary of defense.”
Secretary James Mattis still has three weeks left to develop a new war plan for ISIS and submit it to President Trump. The draft will then have to go through all the channels of deliberation before it is presented to the president for approval. It will be up to him, as commander-in-chief, to make the tough decision about whether to put American boots on the ground for this anti-terror campaign, or veto that option, as his predecessor did.
In their phone conversation Tuesday night, Erdogan tried without success to convince Trump to go forward with the Raqqa operation without delay. But, according to our Washington sources, Trump is holding his horses for four reasons:
1. He was convinced by the Turkish president to deny the Syrian Kurdish militia a dominant role in the war on ISIS, to avoid encouraging their national aspirations to self-rule. Defense Secretary Mattis is therefore saddled with the task of finding a substitute force to fill the Kurds’ role as operation spearhead. An alternative force, if mustered, may require special training, a time-consuming process.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources note that, even if the Pentagon could scrape together a coalition force for the Raqqa offensive, the US command in Iraq and Syria can’t promise enough troops to hold the town for long enough to ward off an ISIS counterattack to recover its lost domain.
2. The decision to drop the Kurds from the lead role also derives from their performance in the still ongoing US-led Iraqi offensive to liberate Mosul from ISIS. The Peshmerga troops provided by the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq deserted the operation as soon as they had captured the outlying villages they had marked for annexation to the KRG. Trump’s advisers were concerned that the Kurds might repeat this conduct in Syria.
3. Prior intelligence surveillance of the Raqqa region showed most of the native Arab tribes to be strongly opposed to US special ops forces entering their turf and determined to withhold cooperation. Some of those tribal chiefs are in clandestine cahoots with ISIS behind false identities. Others are against any Kurdish presence on their lands.
4. Raqqa has a civilian population of 300,000 mostly Sunni Arabs. Who will look after their humanitarian needs and supply them with such essentials as food, water and medicines? That question too remains to be answered before the operation can go forward.