Raqqa will mark Islamic State’s downfall

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United States-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are gradually pushing ahead in an offensive towards Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in northern Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have wrapped up the first phase of their operation against IS named Euphrates Wrath, according to SDF military sources. The first phase of the Euphrates Wrath aimed to isolate Raqqa from its northern countryside. This was accomplished by securing the towns of Tel al-Samn and Hazima, which link Ain Issa city with Suluk District. The operation’s long term objective is to isolate and eliminate Islamic State in Raqqa.

The current battlefield strategy is to first bomb IS fighting positions inside Al-Raqqa city destroying weapons storehouses and lines of communication while eliminating top IS battlefield commanders. Stage two, which is currently underway, would be to enforce a full blockade of the city and prevent any arms or fighters from reaching Raqqa. Step three would be to march on Al-Raqqa. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are Kurdish led and comprises of about 30,000 local fighters, 20,000 of whom are Kurdish and the rest Sunni Arabs.

Most of the major territorial losses of the IS in Syria be it Kobane, Tal Abyad or Manbij were at the hands of the Kurds. People’s Protection Units (YPG) that liberated the Kurdish regions of northeastern Syria, have proved the most effective force against ISIS, liberating some 20,000 sq.km from the extremists since 2015.

Islamic State, which once had direct access to the Turkish border, has now shrunk to its core in Syria, stretching from Raqqa to Deir Ez-zour.

Against this background, the SDF clearly has an upper hand. The battle for Raqqa which overlap with the major ongoing battle for Mosul in Iraq clearly indicates that the days of Daesh as we knew it are coming to an end. Slowly but surely, ISIS’s empire of terrorism, rape and murder is about to be liberated.

It is fitting that the plan to subdue it in Raqqa is named after the river that ISIS used to spread itself like a cancer across Syria and Iraq in 2014. Located on the northeast bank of the River Euphrates Raqqa was the first provincial capital in either Syria or Iraq the group captured and it has been even more than Mosul been the administrative center of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, and the city from which terror attacks against West are planned.

Liberating Raqqa from ISIS is important because it will destroy the “caliphate” as a whole, not only its capital. It counters the concept of the capital that implies the existence of an Islamic state.

The control of Raqqa and its province has supplied IS with a considerable source of revenue, from the sale of oil from the nearby Al-Habari and Al-Thawra oil fields and from cash the group has demanded from the Assad regime in Damascus for the electric power generated by the Euphrates and Baath dams.

For the Islamic State, the loss of Raqqa would be a devastating blow. The city not only has symbolic value as the capital of the group’s so-called caliphate, but it is also an important hub for transporting people and supplies. Raqqa sits on the Euphrates River and is a key to control several strategic highways in Syria. Without it, the Islamic State would have a much harder time moving fighters and goods from Aleppo province to eastern Syria and beyond. Instead it would be forced to rely on the Resafa-Ash Shola road, which is increasingly threatened by the Syrian government’s advances toward Deir el-Zour.

Given the city’s significance to Islamic State operations in Syria, the group can be expected to funnel substantial resources and reinforcements toward its defense. In addition to sending more fighters to Raqqa, the Islamic State will likely launch counterattacks along the SDF’s other front lines, including al-Hasaka, in an effort to distract its foe.

The Islamic State, however, will be at a disadvantage. While the SDF is focusing most of its attention on attacking the jihadist group, the Islamic State has to contend with the Syrian rebels, Syrian government forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces. Devoting additional attention and resources to Raqqa when it is already overstretched will inevitably hurt the extremist group elsewhere on the battlefield. Driving the IS terrorists from their stronghold will not be easy or cheap, but if the SDF is successful, it will greatly accelerate the Islamic State’s defeat in Syria.

But although Islamic State will continue to win battles and take villages and towns, the extremist group’s peak in Syria is clearly past. The group’s strength will diminish despite its nominal gains. Even so, the Islamic State and groups like it will never fade completely as long as Sunni grievances persist. Full eradication of ISIS however, will require accomplishing the less tangible task of turning the population against the Islamic State something that can happen only if Syria’s civil war is resolved. As Jihadist in Syria are thriving on the instability of conflict zones and the gaps in government authority.

Manish Rai
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and the Af-Pak region, and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround. He can be reached at manishraiva@gmail.com.
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