After last weeks hard-earned victory in Mosul, Iraq the next major front in the coalition war against the Islamic State lies in Raqqah, Syria. The city of Raqqah is the new ground zero for ISIS militants, and remains the official capital for the self-proclaimed Islamic State. This city has massive military and political incentives in its alleviation of the Islamic State presence. If the Islamic State loses Raqqah, it finally loses any real pretense to be considered the “state” that it claims itself to be. This would be one of the final major credibility blows to the terrorist organization, coming soon after the widely believed death of its Caliph by a Russian airstrike a couple months ago.
The variables going into this battle make a coalition military victory considerably more straightforward and achievable; most likely to occur before the close of this year. There are far fewer entrenched militants currently holed up in Raqqah, as well as fewer civilians to complicate engagements between fighters. The geography of the city is also much more forgiving for coalition forces, and is not nearly as dense and difficult to navigate as it had been for anti-ISIS coalition forces in the battle for Mosul.
Some of the difficulties that will complicate and impede victory in Raqqah include the limited quantity of coalition ground forces, and their marked lack of military training. These coalition ground forces are predominately comprised of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) militant group, but also have elements of other multi-religious Arab and Kurdish militiamen, and a small quantity of foreign volunteer fighters. The Islamic State is expected to use much of the same technology and tactics to slow the advance of coalition forces that it had utilized in its occupation of Mosul, including weaponized drones, car bombs and motion-activated improvised explosive devices.
The U.S. position of increasing its military presence in the country is still officially indeterminate, because of the operational security concerns that would come with premature disclosure of such a course of action. U.S. material support for its coalition partners in Syria currently consists of limited air support, supplying MRSP, M-ATV’s and armored bulldozers, as well as direct and indirect small scale arming of these allied forces. There are signs of preparation for a potential U.S. ground support role, but at the moment U.S. personnel seem to be limited to military advisers, special operation forces and limited dual role air support.
The long existing, and more recently, staunchly reaffirmed political and military alliance between Russia and Syria is the noteworthy complication that puts significant limitations on U.S. involvement in this particular war arena. The United States role in the north-eastern territories of Syria, as it stands, is topically impaired by the politically charged red line that Russia’s President Putin had drawn back in April of this year. This has put the U.S. ground force component in a position of only advising partner forces, with a very limited number of these advisers currently in theatre. Just last Thursday however, over 250 more residents of Raqqah completed a U.S. training course to become part of an internal security force of close to 1000 personnel defending against ISIS militants; a modus of force multiplication that U.S. interventionist strategy always seems to use when preparing for direct involvement in a new theatre.
U.S.-coalition fighters ultimately need to make sure to avoid advancing too far, too quickly to obviate stretching out their forces too thin, and leaving themselves vulnerable to ISIS counterattacks. This has been a reoccurring outcome throughout the campaign so far, and has hindered overall coalition progress. Just yesterday on 20JUL2017, the Islamic State launched a series of intense counter attacks against all the areas where the SDF had progressed over the last few days. Coalition military leadership must use tactful discretion in the pace of advancement, and be sure to fully secure territory by properly situating local turnover and to install QRF for backup once territory is seized and forces continue to advance.
The battle for Raqqah will prove to be another major military challenge in the coalition fight against the Islamic State. Once Raqqah is secured by coalition forces, the last major area in Syria will be city of Dier az-zor. As the Islamic State is beaten back from the large swatches of territory that it once held, Russia and Iran will continue with scrambling to gain control over this ceded territory. The concrete influence and control that Russia and its Iranian ally exercise in Syria have severely undermined the original U.S. plan for aiding the regime deposition of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and had given rise to the bigger threat that ISIS now poses to everyone involved. Ultimately, it does not seem that the U.S. will be getting rid of Assad in Syria, and the complications that have risen since the initial attempt have shifted U.S. focus to eliminating the Islamic State instead; a goal that it should now focus on with stern resolve.