What to know about the Raqqa offensive

Updated 5:28 AM EST, Mon November 7, 2016
02:07 - Source: CNN
Plan to seize ISIS 'capital' Raqqa announced

Story highlights

Syrian Democratic Force announces assault on ISIS stronghold in Syria

Local rebel fighters will be supported by coalition air support

CNN —  

As much of the world’s gaze is focused on the battle for Mosul, Kurdish military groups and their allies aligned with the US announced an operation to liberate the terror group’s de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa.

The Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) said in a statement they had established a joint operations center Saturday night for the military campaign “Euphrates Rage,” an attempt by the US-backed coalition to strike at the heart of ISIS.

Coalition spokesman Col. John Dorrian told CNN that rebel forces allied to the US will begin by working positions east of Raqqa, to shut down the so-called “back door escape” out of both Mosul and Raqqa.

“They have begun their march toward Raqqa,” he said.

While Mosul is symbolic as ISIS’ last major possession in Iraq – and the city from which ruler Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the creation of his caliphate – Raqqa holds as much significance for the terror group.

“The importance of Raqqa is that is where ISIS plans their external (terrorist) operations,” Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command told CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. It is the largest Syrian city still under ISIS control – and first captured by the militant group.

“Raqqa is recognized as the financial, leadership and external ops center of the Islamic State, so that’s what makes it important.”

Raqqa is home to nearly 200,000 people, most Sunni Arabs, and an estimated 5,000 militants, according to the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RSS), one of the only sources of information to come out of the city.

Raqqa siege could be toughest yet in fight against ISIS

Who is taking the fight to ISIS in Raqqa?

The biggest challenge is finding troops to bring the fight on the ground against ISIS. Most analysts believe that Raqqa will present a different set of challenges from the Mosul campaign because of the absence of local troops able to carry out the assault.

No indigenous allied force currently exists near Raqqa, although the SDF, which has consisted primarily of ethnically Kurdish troops – primarily Kurdish militias with strong ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK – has expanded its ranks to include a wider coalition of Syrian rebel groups.

The group, which is seen as largely synonymous with the Kurdish YPG, is viewed with suspicion by the Sunni-majority residents of Raqqa, who are concerned that a SDF victory in their city could lead to forced displacements.

“The SDF is the partner force most capable of acting soon to isolate Raqqah and commenced movement toward Raqqah on 5 November,” a statement from the Coalition Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said, using an alternate spelling for the Syrian city.

“We believe the inclusion of fighters from the local population is an important advantage to the SDF.”

The SDF includes multiple Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen militia groups and will be carried out in coordination with coalition forces, including airstrikes.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter stressed the need for local forces to take the lead, saying, “We want a victory that sticks everywhere, so it’s always local forces.”

A staunchly secular Kurdish militia in Syria known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, has proven to be one of ISIS’ deadliest enemies on the ground in Syria.

The Kurds’ stiff resistance to the ISIS siege of the border town of Kobane in 2014 prompted the US to send help in the form of airstrikes and weapons.

The Kurdish faction has since succeeded in capturing large swaths of territory from ISIS.

At alternating times the Kurdish militia also has periodically clashed with, and cooperated with, Syrian rebel groups and the Syrian government.

In Syria, up to 300 US Special Operations Forces advising the SDF are authorized to be in the country.