National Security & Defense

Four Reasons It’s Time to Retake Raqqa

Burned ISIS banner in the recaptured city of Palmyra, March 27, 2016. (Maher el Mounes/AFP/Getty)

“Lots of work, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Around every corner could be a world of hurt and on more than one occasion I remember whoever was on point saying “Oh s**t!” and then gunfire. Tough work.”

— Maciej Kolodinski, USMC veteran (Fighting 13th) of Anbar campaign (2006–07), describes urban warfare to NRO

For civilians and combatants alike, urban warfare is brutal. Battles in two cities, 60 miles and 745 years apart, serve as cases in point. In 1258, Hulagu’s Mongols seized Baghdad, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocents. In November 2004, when the U.S. Marines (and special-operations forces from other U.S. and allied services) stormed Fallujah and vanquished al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Corps lost nearly 100 men in bloody house-to-house fighting.

So urban fighting carries a high cost. Still, for four reasons, as the battle for Mosul gets underway, it’s also time to commence the battle for Raqqa, the capital city of Daesh (also known as ISIS).

First, Daesh is facing new internal vulnerabilities. Under pressure in western and northern Syria, its forces must also now grapple with insecure supply lines across the northern Iraqi–Syrian border. Daesh finances are also coming under increasing pressure — though not to the catastrophic degree some are claiming. More important, conditions in Raqqa are worsening. As the human-rights group known as “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” — which has personnel on the ground in Raqqa — has explained in recent days, Daesh has raised taxes, lowered salaries, and increased rationing of electricity and water in the city. In addition, just as the need for public servants reaches critical levels, Daesh has banned women from working in hospitals. (Raqqa’s collapse of public services was predictable.)

Adding to the discord is the anger of Raqqa’s population (and Iraqi and Syrian Daesh fighters) toward the city’s foreign-fighter residents. Favored by the group’s senior leadership for their propaganda value, foreign fighters have the highest privileges. All of this together means that the enemy is now vulnerable and destabilized – and a ripe target for an allied offensive.

Second, Daesh is more vulnerable now for specifically military reasons. An aggregation (admittedly ramshackle) of Syrian-Arab and Kurdish forces has now succeeded in dominating the northern approaches to Raqqa. While these forces are supported by an unusual combination of actors – some by Russian president Vladimir Putin (pursuing malicious interests), some by the U.S. and Sunni Arab nations, and some by both — they collectively pose a potent threat to Daesh.

The Brussels attacks make it essential that we retake Raqqa.

Raqqa, like Mosul, is compressed against the Euphrates River. Daesh would therefore face three choices in a battle for the city: surrender; run south into the desert (and face aerial obliteration); or face annihilation in separated blocks of the city (in a face-to-face, man-to-man urban battle). In short, the military situation favors attack. (The first factor, the discontent within Raqqa, is linked to this military factor: As the regional analyst known as “Beyond the Levant” noted to me, disgust for Daesh in Raqqa means that the population might even accept Kurdish forces.

Third, retaking Raqqa now would amount to a vital and serious strategic recognition of the broader regional politics at play in Iraq and Syria. Iran’s grand strategy is now to bring Prime Minister Abadi of Iraq under dominion. A victory over Daesh in Syrian Raqqa would also offer much-needed credibility to Abadi in Baghdad.

Fourth — and this is crucial — the Brussels attacks make it essential that we retake Raqqa. As I noted here on NRO, Brussels proves that Daesh’s hordes remain strong. From Afghanistan to Belgium to Indonesia to Britain to all 50 U.S. states, Daesh’s black flag of tyranny continues to wave proudly. The group continues to provoke innocents into fear and extremists into aggression. It continues to attract new recruits, allies, and financiers. And the military capacity that this fealty affords Daesh is intolerable for the West.

Of course, defeat in Raqqa won’t be the end of Daesh. Speaking to me yesterday, Jim Reese, a former Delta senior officer and a true expert on these matters, made two key points. First, “Daesh already knows its days are up in Raqqa and has begun retrograde operations to displace key leaders and their best fighters.” Second, we need to win warrior allies in Muslim populations, the way the Marines did in Iraq, and also wage a war of attrition against senior Daesh leaders, as we did in Iraq: “We crushed them at dinners, parties, and never made a big deal of it, and kept our mouths shut and scared them so badly they were always looking over their shoulders.”

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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