The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance has begun operations to seize Raqqah, the city that serves as al-Baghdadi’s headquarters and the capital of ISIS. For every actor involved in Syria and Iraq, it’s a critical moment.
The efforts to secure Mosul are already under way, and this new operation ramps up the physical and psychological pressure on ISIS. Now compressed inside both their Iraqi and Syrian capitals by tens of thousands of adversaries, ISIS will fear increasing defections. Slowly but surely, their movement, supposedly ordained by God, faces annihilation. But in ISIS’s strategic calculus, Raqqah is more important than Mosul. The group will fight hard to retain the city.
Still, as I noted back in April at NRO, there are good reasons to assault Raqqah now rather than later. Most important, Raqqah is ISIS’s internal and external operations command center. Directing deployments in Syria and Iraq, and terrorist cells in the West, this command-and-control structure is vital to ISIS’s military efficacy. Situated along the Euphrates river valley, Raqqah links ISIS commanders to their forces on the Syria-Iraq border and helps them make inroads deep into Iraqi territory. As the SDF approaches the city outskirts, it will face increasingly aggressive attacks. ISIS views civilians as props for their defense. As such, civilian casualties in retaking Raqqah will probably be significant.
There’s also the issue of geography. In basic terms, if ISIS loses Raqqah, it will have few other redoubts in Syria and Iraq into which it can retreat. If the city is taken by the SDF, ISIS will be forced south of the Euphrates river valley into the western Syrian desert. And it’s hard to sustain and conceal fighters and equipment in desert terrain. ISIS’s only other choice will be retreating to its eastern settlements along the Euphrates, where coalition forces in Iraq and Syria might encircle them. Regardless, ISIS forces and communication-supply lines will be far more vulnerable to Western air power.
Nevertheless, Raqqah’s future isn’t consequential simply for the coalition and ISIS. It’s also important for Assad and Putin, who probably want Raqqah to remain in ISIS’s hands. Why? Again, it’s all about geographic strategy. The city of Aleppo, besieged by the Syrian regime, is 100 miles directly west of Raqqah. And if ISIS is broken in Raqqah, its frontier posts between Aleppo and Raqqah will also fall in short order. In turn, Aleppo would be left as the only settlement between anti-Assad rebel territory in eastern Syria and anti-Assad rebel territory in Syria’s western Idlib province. Thus, were Raqqah to fall, rebel formations around Aleppo would be more likely to break the regime’s siege of the city. Moreover, they would have contiguous lines of control between the Iraq–Iran border and 20 kilometers from Syria’s Mediterranean Sea frontier. That control would strangle ISIS’s freedom of movement in the north and significantly degrade Assad’s efforts (backed by Russia) to strangle the moderate rebellion.
Finally, there’s the issue of Turkey. Paranoid about the perceived threat of Kurdish forces along its southern border, Turkey wants to ensure that Raqqah’s fall does not lead to rising Kurdish power. As I noted recently at NRO, in the coming days, the U.S. will have to play a key role in restraining Turkish aggression against the Kurds.
Ultimately however, there’s positive poetic justice in what’s happening now. ISIS faces the real prospect of being forced into the desert that has come to define it. After all, the Syrian desert was where the brutal death cult filmed the grotesque beheadings that brought them instant worldwide attention. Now, we can hope that same desert will become the grave for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s horde. Last week, in an audio message to his followers, al-Baghdadi warned about that growing possibility.
Slowly but surely, he knows the end is coming.