Is the battle for Raqqa imminent?
When Syrian Kurdish fighters swept south out of Kobani last month, seizing a huge swathe of territory from the Islamic State, the capital of the self-declared “caliphate” seemed suddenly vulnerable.
Rumour followed quickly, suggesting that Raqqa could soon find itself under siege, thanks to the combined efforts of U.S.-led airstrikes, Kurdish YPG fighters and a smaller contingent of Syrian Arab allies operating as the tip of the spear.
But the race to retake the capital of ISIS now appears on hold until deeper in 2016, as an army of Syrian Kurds and their coalition partners grapple over how best to proceed in a way that minimizes risk for civilians trapped within.
Among the concerns, the likelihood of ISIS fighters taking Raqqa civilians hostage as human shields; the likelihood of even deeper suffering for those same civilians, in that the cutting of supply lines result in a protracted siege; and the risk that any battle involving a mostly Kurdish army entering a mostly Sunni Arab city will devolve into a sectarian disaster.
The U.S.-led effort to distinguish, arm and train so-called Syrian Arab moderates, widely viewed as a dismal failure until now, leaves little doubt that any attack on Raqqa will depend largely on the Kurdish YPG/YPJ armies. The extent to which they will be met and joined by anti-ISIS rebels en route, and within Raqqa itself, remains a vexing question.
Toronto filmmaker Nadim Fetaih, now in the midst of a making a documentary on the Syrian Kurdish rebels in question, has travelled to the newly drawn frontlines, including the strategically importantly Tishrin Dam, in recent days. He is of the view that no push for Raqqa will begin until February at the earliest.
Sectarian concerns — “fear of being seen as an occupying force, which is not how the Kurds want to be seen” — has prompted a halt, for now, Fetaih told The Star.
“During two days at the Tishrin Dam we were shot at by (ISIS) snipers for a little bit but otherwise all is calm. It seems like the calm before the storm.”
Fetaih, who speaks fluent Arabic with a strong Egyptian accept, said he is struck by the welcome he has received from the Kurdish fighters. Over the course of the past year, the YPG has done battle with many Egyptian-born ISIS fighters that sound just like him — and yet not one among the Kurdish partisans he has encountered has questioned Fetaih’s loyalties.
“Let’s be honest — as an Arab of fighting age barely 120 kilometres from Raqqa, you would expect the Kurds here to be a bit more careful with me until they figure out who I am,” he said.
“And yet if anything, they have embraced us even more, as part of their family, inviting us into their homes. When you consider how many Egyptian Daesh members got kicked out of Egypt and joined to fight with Raqqa against the Kurds, the welcome I am getting speaks volumes.”
Yet another factor complicating Raqqa’s fate is the extent to which Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime, now backed by major Russian air power, will act to shape the map beyond its control.
Assad has long been accused of enabling ISIS by directing the heft of an expanding Russian air campaign at other rebel groups threatening the Syrian regime, with the goal of forcing the international community to accept that this kaleidoscopic civil war offers only a single, binary choice — Assad or ISIS.
In the final week of 2015, eyebrows were raised over a deal in which Assad reportedly consented to allow Islamic State fighters and their families to exit the besieged Yarmouk camp outside Damascus and escape to Raqqa.
Amid a dearth of reliable, front-line reporting — almost all foreign news organizations have deemed the conflict too dangerous to enter — disinformation stands as a final, complicating factor.
On Saturday, for example, news sites the world over erupted with a report of ISIS “massacres” in the embattled eastern city of Deir Ezzour, where Daesh reportedly shot or beheaded as many as 200 civilians and kidnapped 400 others. By Sunday, activists inside the city sharply contradicted those reports, suggesting instead a death toll of as few as 15 people. One local anti-ISIS outlet, DeirEzzor24, reported it could find “no evidence that the group perpetrated a massacre in the town.”