“Raqqa we are coming” say the words spray-painted in Kurdish at the entrance to this empty little town, which lies on the front line of a U.S.-backed advance toward the Islamic State’s capital.
The city of Raqqa is 17 miles away, a tantalizingly short hop to the place showcased in the terrorists’ propaganda videos as an Islamist utopia, where the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels were planned and where, U.S. officials warn, new plots against the West are being forged.
But a full offensive to retake the city could still be months or more away, despite hopes in Washington that an operation to take the Islamic State’s most symbolically significant stronghold would be well underway before President Obama left office.
A rare visit to the Raqqa front line illustrated how near and yet so far the defeat of the Islamic State remains. The battle for Mosul in neighboring Iraq has stalled, the attack in Berlin has brought home the continued threat of terrorism, and there is still no plan for an offensive on Raqqa, making the war one of the most immediate, and complicated, challenges the Trump administration will have to confront.
Meanwhile, a preliminary operation to isolate and besiege Raqqa is going well. Over the past month, a Kurdish-Arab alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has been slicing briskly through Islamic State lines in the northern and western countryside of Raqqa province. The fighters have captured some 140 villages and nearly 800 square miles of mostly empty rural land on two fronts in a just over a month, countering little resistance along the way.
This is not the battle for Mosul, where large armored formations are converging from different directions. There are more sheep than soldiers scattered across the empty fields. Flocks trot through the landscape herded by boys on donkeys as the lightly armored pickup trucks and SUVs used by the Kurdish and Arab militia weave among them.
Every now and then, American soldiers hurtle past, a reminder that the U.S. military is very much invested in the Raqqa front, however remote it may be. There are around 600 Special Operations troops embedded with the SDF in northeastern Syria, a number that could rise before the battle fully takes shape, U.S. officials say. One member of those troops was killed on Nov. 24, the first U.S. casualty of the war in Syria.
He died in Tal Saman, a victim of one of the mines and booby traps that have become the Islamic State’s hallmark defense against advancing foes in Iraq and Syria.
Otherwise, the terrorists have put up little resistance, firing mortars as the soldiers advance but retreating well before their enemies arrive.
Bigger obstacles loom, however, in the form of a geopolitical tangle that could prove more daunting than any defenses mounted by the Islamic State.
At the heart of the issue is the U.S. military’s policy of sending arms to the area controlled by the main Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, widely known as the YPG.
The decision has paid off so far. The YPG – which constitutes the Kurdish component of the SDF – has proved to be the United States’ most effective military ally in Syria, and it has retaken vast swaths of territory. It is also expanding deep into Arab areas as it presses forward against the terrorists, raising questions among observers about the long-term sustainability of the gains.
The cooperation has, moreover, provoked the ire of Turkey, because of the YPG’s long-standing ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is designated a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington. Turkey is waging its own offensive against the Islamic State in nearby Aleppo province but has hinted it may soon turn on the SDF alliance and perhaps then make its own push for the Islamic State capital.
The Syrian government also opposes the Kurdish expansion and has repeatedly said it plans to retake Raqqa, which it lost control of in 2013. Syria is backed by Russia, which is forging a new alliance with Turkey over Syria, potentially setting the stage for a global clash over who wins the prize goal.
To ameliorate the concerns of its NATO ally, the U.S. military says it is giving arms only to Arab fighters within the umbrella SDF, formed last year to serve as a vehicle for the delivery of military aid. There are 13,000 Arabs now serving with the SDF, alongside 45,000 Kurds with the YPG, according to a U.S. military spokesman, Col. John Dorrian.
But there seems to be little doubt that the YPG is leading the fight. Its flags flutter over the checkpoints along the newly liberated rural roads and at the military bases closest to the front lines. Its graffiti is scrawled over the walls of the captured towns and villages, as in Tal Saman, where the initials “YPG” were scrawled alongside the pledge to take Raqqa.
The Kurdish-Arab alliance, with U.S. assistance, plans to recruit and train an additional 10,000 Arab fighters for an offensive on Raqqa, said Rojda Felat, one of the commanders of the offensive to encircle the city. But YPG participation will be essential “because we have proved that we are the most effective fighters,” she said.
“We will even go past Raqqa,” she added, to other areas farther south controlled by the Islamic State, which is also known as IS, ISIL or Daesh.
Whether it is wise to send an overwhelmingly Kurdish force to capture the overwhelmingly Arab city of Raqqa is in question, however. A Kurdish push on Raqqa risks alienating the local population, perhaps encouraging residents who otherwise would not support the Islamic State to fight on its behalf, according to Abu Issa, a commander with the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, or Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade.
“We saw in Iraq and other places that if the local people are not involved in the liberation, there won’t be any stability,” he said in an interview at his headquarters, in a remote farmhouse in the countryside of Raqqa province. He and his group are from Raqqa, and though they are loosely allied with the SDF, they fly the flag of the Free Syrian Army.
“All the Arabs know that the SDF are YPG, and if things continue as they are, there will be big problems in the future, sectarian clashes and conflict,” Abu Issa said. “People don’t understand why the YPG are going to Raqqa. It’s an entirely Arab area, and the Arabs feel marginalized.”
Arab residents of the areas recently freed from Islamic State control seem mostly just relieved to be rid of the terrorists – and to have survived yet another battle, one that has so far proved mercifully brief. The fight has been so easy that there have been few casualties and relatively little damage to the isolated villages dotting the desert landscape.
The YPG fighters conduct what appear to be well-organized evacuations of the villages that lie in the path of the offensive. As people from areas close to the front lines leave, those from villages that have been cleared are allowed to return.
On one recent day, hundreds of people streamed into Ain Issa from villages well behind Islamic State lines, in trucks piled high with children, mattresses and sheep. They had responded, they said, to messages sent by the Kurds to vacate their homes before the battles arrived. They said they were glad to seize the chance to escape the seemingly collapsing rule of the Islamic State fighters fleeing in the other direction.
“They used to take people with them to use as human shields, but now they are not even doing this,” said Saleh Hassan, one of the men who said he escaped his home through minefields to reach the Kurdish lines. “People were with them before, but now even their fighters are trying to defect.”
Ahmed Naim, 23, said he had covertly sold cigarettes and had many run-ins with the terrorists, who banned smoking. “Their days are numbered,” he said. “Daesh is finished, and the majority of the people are happy.”
It is hard to tell how happy people really are when armed guards are standing nearby. As the villagers who escaped areas behind the Islamic State lines arrived in Ain Issa, others were returning to their homes in the village of Hisha, which was freed last month after a brief battle.
At the local barbershop, a line of long-haired customers waited on wobbly plastic chairs for haircuts that were forbidden under Islamic State rule. “Nobody wants IS,” Mouay ad Khalaf said as he snipped the curly locks of a teenage boy.
But some men, when stopped in the street and asked what they thought of the change of authority, seemed less thrilled.
“They haven’t caused us any problems,” one man said vaguely. He didn’t want to be named.
“It’s okay,” said another who didn’t seem sure. “We’re cooperating with them.”
U.S. officials acknowledge the concerns about sending Kurds into battle in Raqqa but say that at the moment there is no alternative. “The only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters last month.
Turkey has, meanwhile, been waging a rival offensive against the Islamic State farther west, in the province of Aleppo, where Turkish troops are backing Syrian Arab rebels with the Free Syrian Army, with the support of the United States. Though the focus of the fighting is on the Islamic State, Turkey has threatened to attack the SDF, potentially drawing troops and resources away from the Raqqa battle.
So complicated are the politics that there is still no plan for a Raqqa offensive, said Nasir Haj Mansour, a veteran Kurdish fighter who is now an adviser to the SDF. “Unfortunately, yes,” he said when asked whether he thought the Islamic State would still be in control of Raqqa in six months’ time.
And in a year?