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Story highlights

Commander of the coalition fighting ISIS gives an exclusive interview on how the fight is going

"If I need more resources I will go to my chain of command and tell them what I need to get the job done," he says

(CNN) —  

The US general commanding the coalition fight against ISIS expects the fight for its de facto capital to have hit the city center by this summer, and in an exclusive interview with CNN, he held out the possibility that more US troops may be needed for that tougher fight.

Speaking on a day trip to the Bakhaira base, where US troops provide assistance for the fight in the Iraqi city of Mosul, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said, “I certainly hope that the assault on Raqqa is underway by this summer.”

Pressed if he would be surprised if that fight continued into next year, he said, “In Raqqa city? Yes.”

After the grueling fight for the main Iraqi stronghold of ISIS, its northern city of Mosul, the focus of the coalition and new administration of President Donald Trump has shifted to Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the militant group’s self-declared caliphate. The battle – for a city a lot smaller in size than Mosul yet still highly symbolic – is expected to be long and complex, given the array of opposing forces positioned around the city.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend (shown in a file photo) says he may need more troops in the fight for Raqqa.
Dominique van Heerden/CNN
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend (shown in a file photo) says he may need more troops in the fight for Raqqa.

Townsend held out the possibility that further US troops could be required for the assault against the ISIS-held city, currently flanked to the north, east and west by coalition-backed Syrian rebel forces, called the SDF.

“We have the resources we need right now to do what we need to do, which is to complete the isolation of Raqqa,” he said. “After the isolation will come the assault and we are still evaluating the resources we need. If I need more resources I will go to my chain of command and tell them what I need to get the job done.”

A US official also said further troops may be required to bolster the allied Syrian rebel efforts when the fight reaches the city proper.

The constantly changing battlefield around ISIS developed another potential front in the past weeks, since the Syrian regime attacked civilians in the region of Idlib, prompting the Trump administration to launch 60 cruise missiles against a Syrian regime airfield. Yet Townsend said the attack against the regime had changed the coalition thinking “a little bit, but I couldn’t say specifically how.” He dismissed the risk of the regime using sarin gas against US troops as “very small,” yet warned against any hostility.

“Let me just say: I don’t think the Syrian regime wants to pick a fight with the US or a global coalition against ISIS. I don’t think they want to do that.”

The Russian tension presents a possible obstacle ahead for the campaign against Raqqa, as Russian and Syrian troops are – at some distance – to the south of the city, and to its west.

Townsend said, “Right now, we are not planning, or coordinating, with them [the Russians and regime]. They are not even located near Raqqa. We think they have their hands full doing their tasks in their areas and they are probably happy to let the SDF and coalition forces tackle Raqqa.”

The assault on Raqqa will begin to bring the campaign against ISIS toward its end, with the group now on its back foot after experiencing many losses of territory and leaders. The Iraqi military said this week the group now held only 7% of Iraqi territory.

Townsend admitted, however, he had “no clue” where the group’s elusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was, but hoped he was still in Mosul. “Because if he is, we have got him trapped. And I’d like to see his end in Mosul,” he said.

He said he believes, however, the ISIS leader is still calling the shots in the group. “We haven’t seen any reporting that anyone else is giving the orders [in ISIS]. He’s a survivor. He’s keeping an extraordinarily low profile and he’s not up on comms. And he’s not up on TV, or publishing audiotapes to give orders. He’s giving a very low profile.”

This story has been updated to include further clarification from the US military.