Battle For Raqqah: Preconditions, Opposing Forces, Forecast

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The city of Raqqah is considered one of the most important Syrian cities. The city is located on the northeast bank of the Euphrates River, at the edge of “Sharqiya Syria”, a term used to describe eastern Syria. Syria’s largest dam, the Tabqah Dam is located 40 kilometers west of Raqqah. The dam is one of the most important electricity and water sources in Syria. It was built to generate the hydroelectric power, as well as irrigate lands on both sides of the Euphrates. The town of Tabqah and the nearby Tabqah Miitary Airport are located directly south of the dam.
Raqqah is linked with the Syrian industrial capital of Aleppo, the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor, and the fertile area Hasakah through the M4 Highway. The city’s inhabitants number 220,000, according to the 2004 census. The Raqqah countryside is home to about 100,000 people.

The strategic importance of the city as well as the nearby Tabqah dam turned Raqqah into a target for every faction involved in the war and all of them have attempted to take control of it.

At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Raqqah was one of the calmest provinces, as it did not witness any significant protests or violence. Sporadic protests by opposition groups did not exceed a hundred protestors at their peak.
Thus, Raqqah and its capital became one of the safest provinces accepting scores of loyalist refugees displaced from the Aleppo, Hasakah, and Deir Ezzor where fierce clashes between pro-government forces and militants took place in 2012.

At the end of 2012, Ahrar Al-Sham with the support of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda; Now it’s known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) declared its intention to capture the provincial capital of Raqqah and launched a military operation to do this. Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra captured the Jirah Airbase and the important town of Maskanah in the province of Aleppo, and entered into the province of Raqqah. Militants captured Tabqah and the Tabqah Military Airport and captured the city of Raqqah after 3 days of clashes on March 6, 2013.

The Syrian Army did not organize any real defenses for the city. This led to many questioning the loyalties of the provincial leadership, which seemingly played an integral role in the loss of this strategic province.

Initially, ISIS activities inside the city were aimed at supporting Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra in actions against the besieged Syrian Army military installations in its vicinity. However, later ISIS began own operation in order to recapture Raqqah from Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIS declared a control over Raqqah in January 2014. A majority of Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra militants fled, abandoning the entire city to ISIS. Those who remained either defected to ISIS or were executed.

In the past three years, ISIS was systematically strengthening its presence and influence in Raqqah as it did not face any real danger from other forces involved in the war.

In 2016, following the first liberation of Palmyra, the Syrian Army, backed up by the Russian Aerospace Forces, launched an advance with the goal of recapturing the Tabqah Military Airport and even the city of Raqqah from ISIS. However, government forces did not reach even their first goal and were pushed to retreat after a series of ISIS counter attacks.

The start of the Russian military operation in Syria in 2015 dramatically changed the course of the war and returned an ability to conduct successful operations to the Assad government. The government advance on the Tabqah Military Airport resulted in no gains. Nonetheless, it became clear that if the US-led coalition against ISIS continues ignoring the terrorist group in Syria, the Syrian government and its allies would be able to solve this problem by themselves. [Just for example, in the same year, the Syrian army liberated the city of Aleppo from Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies. This was one of the biggest government victories in this war.] This could become a major diplomatic and PR failure for the US and its regional allies.

In October 2015, the new brand of the US-backed forces appeared in the war. The establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was declared during a press conference in Hasakah, a town controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG). While the US and the mainstream media claimed that, the SDF was multi-ethnic organization, the YPG and the YPJ, the female equivalent of the YPG, became the core of the group. Understanding this problem, the US-led coalition contributed significant efforts in 2016 and in early 2017 to build an Arab faction in the SDF. However, the Kurdish militias remained the undisputed core of the SDF.

On November 6, 2016, the SDF, backed up by the US-led coalition’s air power and special forces, launched the Operation Euphrates Wrath aimed at expelling ISIS from the province of Raqqah.

Now, the SDF officially includes:

  1. 36,000 YPG fighters
  2. 24,000 YPJ fighters
  3. 20,000 Arab tribal fighters including groups like the Manbij Military Council

Between 10,000 and 20,000 members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) present in the SDF-held area in northern Syria and unofficially participate in SDF military operations. Official representatives of the PYD and the YPG have repeatedly denied this fact because it could negatively impact the US-Turkish relations. An official recognition of this fact will also create a pretext for Ankra to launch a military operation against the SDF. Turkey and a number of other nations describe the PKK as a terrorist group. The Turkish leadership insists that the YPG is just a branch of the PKK.

However, this does not stop Ankara from conducting military strikes on YPG targets along the Turkish-Syrian border. The United States have been pushed to increase its military activity along the border and at a contanct line between the SDF and pro-Turkish militants in the province of Aleppo to prevent a possible full-scale Turkish military operations against the SDF/YPG in northern Syria. Thus, US troops play a role of buffer force between Turkey and the SDF.

The SDF advance in the Raqqah countryside is ongoing amid an immense fire support from the US Coalition’s warplanes, attack helicopters and artillery. The US also expanded few airfields inside Syria. They are used for delivering supplies to the SDF and as forward bases for US attack helicopters. The US, French and Germany special operations forces also play an important role in supporting the SDF on the ground. The US Marine Corps provides an artillery support for SDF operations around Raqqah.

So far, the SDF has been able to outflank Raqqah from the western, eastern and northern directions, to cross the Euphrates and to capture the Tabqah Military Airport, the town of Tabqah and to set a foothold for isolating the ISIS self-proclaimed capital from the southern direction.

From its side, ISIS began preparing for the Battle of Raqqah since the Coalition’s announcement of the Raqqah operation in 2016.

Since the beginning, it became clear that ISIS was not intending to defend numerous villages in the Raqqah countryside. In turn, ISIS implemented a mobile defense approach. ISIS units were retreating under the pressure of the SDF and the US-led coalition from small villages and were counter-attacking relying on technicals and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs).

The goal of this strategy was (and is) to deliver a maximum possible damage to the SDF manpower and military equipment instead of attempting to defend small settlements without any strategic value. Tabqah, the Tabqah Military Airbase and the Tabqah dam were the only locations that ISIS had attempted to defend because of their strategic value – controlling these sites, US-backed forces will have a foothold on the southern bank of the Euphrates west of Tabqah.

Inside and around Raqqah, ISIS started setting up a series of fortifications around the city at the end of 2016 by constructing a high berm and a trench that encircles the city in its entirety. Several local sources also reported that the terrorist group had worked on establishing an intricate series of tunnels, trenches, and cement barriers inside Raqqah.

Furthermore, opposition sources reported that ISIS began lacing explosives and planting IEDs in sensitive areas inside and around the city.

At the turn of 2017 following the success of US-backed forces in Raqqah’s western and eastern countryside and the cutting off of the Raqqah-Deir Ezzor highway in addition to the Syrian Army’s resilience in Deir Ezzor, ISIS began relocating its equipment and ammunition to the insides of the city as well as establishing firing points and sniper nests. The terrorist group has been also relocating its most experienced fighters to the city.

According to different sources, in Raqqah ISIS has between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters and its most effective armament including TOW and Fagot missiles smuggled from Idlib. ISIS also has stocked weapons like RPG-29 and OSA M-79 for the Battle of Raqqah. Dozens of tanks and armored vehicles have been deployed inside the city. The group is actively manufacturing various kinds of VBIEDs using their stock of explosives.

A military planning, a motivated infantry and a sophisticated usage of VBIEDs are the key strong sides of ISIS forces.
The current goal of the US-led forces is to seize control of the Raqqah countryside putting an additional pressure on the terrorist group from the northern and western direction. It’s expected that the US-led coalition and its allies on the ground will attempt to repeat the Mosul-like operation. However, there is a difference: US-backed forces could leave an escape route for ISIS members south of Raqqah. This could allow to ease the resistance of ISIS members inside the city. Meanwhile, if this is done, many terrorist group members will be able to remain alive and free in Syria. Some of them could then move to Europe as refugees.

The storm Raqqah will include a heavy bombing campaign by the US-led coalition air force with warplanes, attack helicopters and drones, as well as Marine artillery. The United States will expand their military presence on frontlines against ISIS and deploy more troops and military equipment. Like in Mosul, Washington and the mainstream media will likely deny that US troops are directly engaged in a battle against ISIS in Raqqah. However, without an active US military support, the SDF will be hardly able to retake Raqqah from ISIS in a realistic time.
ISIS will also use the Mosul experience, using well-equipped small groups of fighters, deploying huge numbers of snipers on all streets of the city, and of course the heavy use of VBIED and suicide bombers to attack any gathering of SDF, and to deploy mines and IEDs on all roads.

One of the biggest problems that the SDF will face is a high number of civilians in the city. According to local sources, there are over 250,000 people, including refugees from Deir Ezzor and Iraq, and families of ISIS terrorists in Raqqah.

In general, the battle is expected to last months, and unfortunately, as in Mosul, large numbers of civilians will be killed due to a fighting and the coalition’s bombing campaign. US military officials argue that US-backed forces will start storming Raqqah this summer. Nonetheless, it’s complicated to forecast when the city is retaken from terrorists. Iraqi forces launched their final push towards the ISIS stronghold of Mosul on October 16, 2016 and the city has not been liberated completely so far.

Tensions between the PYD/YPG and the Turkish government is another factor that impacts and slows down the SDF advance on Raqqah.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish-dominated SDF has announced that the liberated city will be included in the Federation of Northern Syria–Rojava, the YPG/SDF-held area of northern Syria.

This raises a lot of concern in the Syrian government and many pro-government activists question the loyalty of the administration that will rule the city and the people’s desire to join Kurdish federalism, especially after much talk about the racist practices of the Kurdish federal administration in Hasakah and Qamishli against the Arabs. Some speculations even say that if SDF succeeded in controlling the city, it may fail in managing it. However, it is too early to make such far-reaching conclusions.

The liberation of Raqqah is an important part of the broader effort aimed at expelling ISIS terrorists from Syria and Iraq. All sides share this point.

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  • chris chuba

    Either … 1. Raqqa will be taken in 3 weeks at the expense of 30,000 civilians, or
    2. Raqqa will be another Mosul. There is no secret sauce to urban warfare with an enemy like ISIS.

    The Kurds fight well out in the open but are not proven in siege tactics. Yeah, they took Manbij after about 6 weeks but even then they signed an evacuation agreement with ISIS letting about 400 fighters and their families leave. Not that there was anything wrong with that but Manbij was not a serious challenge.

    • Bill Wilson

      Sieges are easy. You just sit outside and wait for those inside to eventually run out of food.
      The SDF is heads above the piss-poor local militias allied with the SAA. They’re not afraid to advance against ISIS and stay on their ass once they start running away. They’re smart enough too, to avoid unnecessary losses by allowing ISIS fighters to leave since they know that coalition jets will waste their convoys once they enter ISIS controlled territory.

      • Solomon Krupacek

        to eventually run out of food

        this causes humaniarian catastrophy and western countries send food and resources for population ::P

      • lifeattheendofempire

        How come they are not smart enough to avoid being bombed by Turkey?

        The arabs in Raqqa will not tolerate rule by kurds or the US, and another insurgency will ensue if the US attempts to occupy it like Fallujah

        All the yanky scum are doing is what they have always done, push ISIS towards the government controlled areas. just like the bombing of Deir Ezzor, intended to stop the government from retaking the city and cutting them off from Iraq.

        Instead of attacking ISIS, there is a massive invasion from the south (another illegal invasion without congressional approval) intended to stop shia’s cooperating, in favour of the barbaric saudi monarchies.

        Siege is not that simple, ISIS are happy to die so they wont try to escape, all they need is snipers and IEDs to hold up the SDF terrorists

        • Wally

          Some rumors Iranian Republican guards training kurds/arabs in manbji.

          • Jens Holm

            Well, You might put Your nose above the blanket – and Your hands too.

        • Jens Holm

          SDf are in a dilemma. They have no defence against airstrikes and artillery. If they back Turks and FSA will go in right away. So they are as smarts as possible. You seems not to be.

          The rest is no good and SAA has never been able or has chosen to come, where those 400 are blocking ISIS and helping SAA(and themselves) by doing so. Well, You might be counting 1 of them as 10 from SAA.

          ISIS is blocking for the Palmyra sleeping or dead octopussy not those few 60 km away expt for those Hesbollah-SAA geting lost or something in direction Iraqian border.

          Take a car, start it. An icecreme in the one hand and the rat in the other. After 1 hour, Your can liberate Deir El Zor. In most vehicles, You can have friends with You too.

    • Jens Holm

      Very special version. Things also has changed a lot since then. Im sure SDF is much better in urban warfare, then You seemes to expect.

  • Barba_Papa

    The way I see it, while the future presence of the Kurds in Raqqa will cause some worry to Damascus in the long run, chances are it will totally occupy their attention for many months to come. The Kurds do not have the manpower to launch additional offensives. All the more so since they face potential problems along the border with Turkey.

    This will prevent the Kurds from carrying out the socalled scenario of taking East Syria, as is so often shouted about by conspiracy thinkers here. And that’s excluding that I doubt that the Kurds even have the desire to do this. Its become even less likely with the SAA’s drive to the Iraqi border cutting off US supported FSA headchoppers moving into Eastern Syria from their base in Jordan.

    In the short to medium term the Kurds taking Raqqa will be a god sent for Damascus. It’s not like Damascus can’t do anything about it to take Raqqa themselves. And it will allow the SAA to move into Eastern Syria itself and move towards Deir Ezzor at its own pace, even more so once the Al Tanj border crossing has been secured. as it will not be in a competition with the Kurds. Excluding yet another Hama offensive launched by Al Nusra from Idlib of course.

    • Bill Wilson

      I think the Kurds are the least of Assad’s worries since they’ve been willing to work with his government, the SAA and Russians. His biggest problems are allied local militias that are reluctant to move out after ISIS or go off on their own adventures instead of following orders.

    • Mountains

      Negative the Syrian regime will not make it first to Deir Ezzor. They are blocked from both roads.

      The US plan is to completely take Deir-Ezzor and take controll… source from today http://baladi-news.com/en/news/details/19421/

      • Jens Holm

        I dont see that at all. If they start that bad ideay, they also have to take the inclaved north og of them.

        But You are right in, there is a vakuum out there, and som from ISIS shouldnt fill it.

    • dutchnational

      While I think you are mostly correct, there are some matters that can or will influence the outcome of your calculations :

      Firstly, As there is no connection between Afrin canton and Kobane and Jazeera canton, the SDF of the west will not be occupied by Raqqah at all. SDF has substantial numbers there and more equipment then before as Assad allowed some military convoys from Manbij to Afrin.

      Secondly, you equate the kurds with the SDF. While kurds are a driving force, the arab component is growing rapidly, and there might be pressure from some of them, say the DeZ MC, maybe even the US, to take on more of the east of Syria

      Thirdly, the manpower equation is fluid. SDF numbers are growing rapidly, both among arabs and kurds. Furthermore, the HXP, the conscript army, is not factored in. Their numbers are growing rapidly and their aim is normally defending the region. Their existence will free up YPG and YPJ units now guarding cities. Furthermore, there are already some units of the HXP sighted in the Raqqah countryside, thereby relieving SDF forces of the necessity to have units behind the lines to guard their backs against infiltration andd sleeper cells.

      I agree though with the assessment that assaulting Raqqah will be time consuming, will be costly in terms of manpower occupied and losses to both civilians and fighters.

      It might be that this is the reason that the SDF has not advanced on the second dam in the Euprates, nearer to Raqqah city, so as to leave a small opening for the rats to get out.

      Whatever the outcome, even in case the US deserts the SDF after Raqqah, the assault on Raqqah will leave the SDF with an almost proffessional army, seasoned in combat. Those that think SDF will hand over either the city (other then to allies) or the heavy material they receive from the US or capture from IS, those have delusions.

      • lifeattheendofempire

        So, the kurds will occupy an arab city indefinitely? Once the war is over, the US will have to occupy the city or leave and risk either the Syrian gov. or Turkey moving in to evict the kurds. They wont get to just steal an entire chunk of Syria without fighting either Syria or Turkey, therefore a long term US presence is likely, and another endless war is undertaken

        • dutchnational

          I wrote SDF, do not change my words. SDF is multiethnic. But there will be (how many??) kurds in Raqqah imo, as there were ever kurds in Raqqah, which was some 25% kurdish before 2011.

          Furthermore, they want autonomy within Syria, it is not like Turkey, stealing now their second region of Syria. They never gave back Alexandretta and they will not give back the Azaz Yarablus region. Even their new “local” police wears turkish patches.

      • Jens Holm

        Not a single real word for making some peace.

    • Red Tick Alert

      Personally I think that Assad should give the Kurds domain over the city and even further unite with them. Get some fully manned up Russian and even Iranian bases as well, update or overhaul the military and then – give it a few years or more to rebuild and then start the payback on Turkey.

      Also the Kurds can act like a buffer zone.

      Doing this will also give hope to the Iraqis of all sects and take the decision making away from the US.

      PS I reckon this has already been discussed WITH Russian and Iranian backing – for all it is a win-win.

      • Wally

        It will antagonize KRG also.

        • Jens Holm

          Yes, they can join Barzani or something. You cant several so different solutions interfiering even kurds – and after that the arbas there just should accept all.

          No realism in logic statemenets as this.

      • Jens Holm

        That an illegal choise. SDF has promised the comming counsil to choose by itself.

        Even friendly Your words say, they just are spendable as usual. They are not.

    • Wally

      SDF will advance all the way to the river in deir ezzor, everything below is SAA or FSA to grab including major dei ezzor city and maaydin and abu bukhumal.

      • Jens Holm

        If so, its the arab part of it and its arab associates.

  • Pete

    The main objective i think even if the kurd federalism happens, that the border should be defendable i don’t think that if Kurds would take both side of the Eufrates river just in a line 20km down, does it make any sense to go down further, as it’s a desert, there is no strategic value, and whoever creates the border he will be a very huge amount of patrol cost.

    • Pete

      It’s interersting how much time it’s needed to take Raqqa, as it might be enough long which allows Assad to go to Deir Ezzor. Either way i don’t think that Assad will leave Deir Ezzor for Kurds. Logically it might be the good option to use the Eufrates river as a border. Deir Ezzor would be for Kurds if ISIS would beat Assad there, but it’s quite unlikely at this point. I’m not sure what’s going on, but i think Assad is kept exporting huge number of soldiers there by plane.

      • Jonathan Cohen

        ABORTION RIGHTS FOR RAQQA!!!! THANKS PYD AND YPJ!!!! Personally, I think the ability to flood out ISIS tunnels will help a great deal, If not, they can always starve ISIS out while reaching Dier Ezzor.

      • Bill Wilson

        The SDF has been taking their time since ISIS has been withdrawing fighters from there to send down to defend Mayadin and it’s approaches. They’ve also been receiving a steady stream of disillusioned ISIS fighters and families that managed to get out of the city. They say life there for most everyone really miserable which may prompt the SDF to wait longer with hopes that a popular uprising will occur against the remaining ISIS fighters with the local ISIS recruits turning their guns onto the fanatics to ensure their own survival. That’s something the US military analysts figured would happen after observing how ISIS managed their caliphate for a few years when they did their damnest to extract as much money as possible from the residents then refused to provide any assistance to those who went broke. Most are or nearly broke so should start raising Hell with ISIS if they have any balls.

      • dutchnational

        There is logic in your comment. It is based upon the perception the SDF equals the kurds, wich is not completely right and is getting less right. There might be spressure from either or both the arab component of the SDF (DeZ MC?) or the US to take on more of the east.

        Neither Assad nor FSA would like that and both are trying to get to DeZ by the back door, so to speak.

        As for reinforcing DeZ by air, those were a few plane loads of paratroopers or the like, that is very lightly armed. There are or were stocks of hardware in DeZ, but they are being degraded steadily by the IS attacks and cannot be replaced as the airport is both closed and cut off from the main SAA base, so useless even if functional.

        The airlift capacity of both Russia and SyAF is insufficient to both replace spent ammo and feed the besieged population.

        So, interesting times ahead for those following the events in Syria.

        • lifeattheendofempire

          Its just entertainment to the west im sure. Russia has been concentrating on Idlib, now that the deconfliction zones have been agreed, it can concentrate all its resources of Deir Ezzor

          • dutchnational

            No, it is not entertainment.

            Many in the West are deeply worried by the developments in Syria and the wider region.

            But, just as there are many like you that do not understand the West at all – only your preconcieved perceptions – there are many in the West like you, not understanding (the East in this case) too.

        • Jens Holm

          Its so funny reading You. First some 400 FSA should take ISIS around Deir El Zor Away – and the – take SAA away.

          • dutchnational

            I said trying (that is not saying “have to”) to get to DeZ, as in the DeZ governate, which is very lightly populated and has no real strongholds by anyone.

            That area can be taken by relatively small forces but they are very impressive on maps as they cover quite a large area.

            Taking the populated part along the river, the city of DeZ is quite something else.

            I have commented elsewhere, I think the US is most unwise to have a small unknown proxy group there to confuse the situation.

            I rather think the US should encourage small FSA groups that are really moderate, secular, to join the SDF. The SDF, imo, should try, or maybe already is, to induce new groups into the SDF to expand their area of interest.

            The city of DeZ is, imo, hard pressed and as syrian sources claim an advance on DeZ out of Palmyra will most likely not be possible before end of 2017, it is questionable if SAA can hold out in DeZ until then, given the airfield is both inoperable and cut off from their main base in DeZ, not to mention the starving population.

            The fact remains however, more attention is starting to be given to southern DeZ governate.

      • lifeattheendofempire

        Syria would have retaken Deir Ezzor if the US didnt plan an airstrike in coordination with ISIS, and if they have held out against overwhelming ISIS numbers, they will hold on or fight to the death rather than surrender the countrys oil wealth to yanky scum, who will be surrounded by Shia forces in Iraq and western Syria. If the US occupies the city, and installs FSA terrorists there, the Syrians/Russians/Iranians and Iraqis will fight a low level insurgency to bleed them until they leave, or are forced to stay in Syria for decades. Another Afghanistan, another unwinnable war, next stop Yemen, so much for “America first, America first” didnt even last 100 days.

  • Mountains

    The US backed FSA will reach Deir Ezzor before SAA hence they can’t march through As-Sukhanah and while FSA are already in Al-Bukamal and towards mayadin. The forces in Jordan needs to move directly into Deir-Ezzor and could be there already in 24-38 hours in Deir-Ezzor..

    British forces might also join them in the push to Deir-Ezzor. Assad won’t make it first to Deir-Ezzor hence they are blocked from both main roads.. One from ISIS and the other from FSA and that was where they got bombed recently in attempts to push thru that road but access was denied firmly

    • lifeattheendofempire

      The Russians will contest the city since the US have invaded Syria with the intention of preventing a shia alliance, they could not care less about ISIS in the south of Syria, they are allied to “moderate” jihadis and the jordanian absolute dictatorship monarchy installed by the British. If you think you will just steal the city, you will have to fight the Syrian army based there, and that has consequences.

      The British are cowardly poodles who will follow wherever the US orders them to go, and without parliamentary approval, they have invaded syria with the aim of balkanising the country, not liberating it. It has no right to be there an needs to stop imperial adventures which will just be countered by Iran and Syria in the long term. F*ck the queen in her German anus, and death to all monarchs created by limey filth.

      • Jens Holm

        I cant see that either. US are asked in by Bagdad shias and iranians help them, so US are already involved with them.

    • Jens Holm

      I dont believe that. If anything it could be a prdeparation for Iraqi or iranian troops comming from Iraq.

      • Solomon Krupacek

        they are already bombed