US pushes for assault on Raqqa to foil ISIS plots against West

But enmity between Turkish govt and Kurds complicates plans to retake Syrian city

WASHINGTON • The fight to retake Raqqa must begin within weeks to disrupt planning believed to be under way there to stage terrorist attacks on the West, senior US officials have said.

Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, the top United States military commander in Iraq, on Wednesday declined to name a specific threat against Western targets emanating from Raqqa - the Syrian city that serves as the capital of ISIS -but described a "sense of urgency".

He said it was imperative that operations to isolate the city begin soon to prevent attacks on the West that could be launched from or planned inside the militants' capital.

In announcing that the fight to retake Raqqa is imminent, US officials are sweeping aside objections from Turkey and moving forward with plans to rely on a ground fighting force that includes Kurdish militia fighters in Syria.

The Turkish government, which has become a complicated ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, fears aspirations for autonomy may spread among its own Kurdish population.

Lt-Gen Townsend stressed that Kurdish militia fighters will be a part of the ground force used to isolate Raqqa.

"We're going to go with who can go, who's willing to go soon," he told reporters at the Pentagon during a video news briefing from Baghdad. "And then, once we get the initial isolation in position, we'll look at how we prosecute the operation further."

The politics of the matter have bedevilled US military planners trying to thread a needle through decades-old enmity between the Turks and the Kurds.

Turkey regards the Syrian Kurdish fighters, known collectively as the YPG, as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the Kurdish rebel group that has sought autonomy from Turkey since the 1980s. Ankara has demanded that the YPG not take part in the fight to retake Raqqa.

But US military officials say the YPG are the best fighters they have.

"The facts are these," Lt-Gen Townsend said. "The only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion."

While the Kurdish militia will make up the bulk of the operation, Lt-Gen Townsend said many of the more than 300 US Special Operations forces now in Syria would help recruit, train and equip local forces in and around Raqqa who are predominantly Syrian Arabs.

The impending operation is further complicated, some independent experts say, because neither the Turks nor the Syrian Kurds view the recapture of Raqqa as one of their top priorities - unlike Washington.

But Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said in Brussels on Wednesday that the offensive to oust ISIS from Raqqa would begin within weeks. "This is, as always, a matter when you're positioning forces and so forth. We have a plan to do that and a schedule to do that," he told reporters. "We're going to execute to that plan."

He met Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik and French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Brussels on Wednesday, where he emphasised that the coalition needs to maintain pressure on ISIS on multiple fronts, according to a Pentagon press statement.

The Raqqa fight will take place even as the fight for Mosul, next door in Iraq, is ongoing, US military planners said.

General Joseph Votel, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, said last week that it is "extraordinarily important" to keep simultaneous pressure on Mosul and Raqqa, if not with ground forces, as with Mosul, at least with a steady pounding of air strikes.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2016, with the headline 'US pushes for assault on Raqqa to foil ISIS plots against West'. Print Edition | Subscribe