NEW YORK – On October 26, just a week into a long-awaited invasion to recapture Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, from militants of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), top American military officials announced another imminent battle. They hoped to launch a fresh ground offensive to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, capital of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate.
Pentagon officials said they feared that ISIS operatives, including some who fled Mosul, are using Raqqa to plot new attacks against the West. “There’s a sense of urgency about what we have to do here because we’re just not sure what they’re up to [ISIS], and where, and when,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said at a news conference from Baghdad. “But we know that this plot planning is emanating from Raqqa.”
On November 6, commanders from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed militia led mainly by Syrian Kurdish and other U.S.- and Western-allied rebel groups, announced “Wrath of the Euphrates,” the next phase of the plan: To isolate and encircle Raqqa by taking over villages in the surrounding countryside and cut off supply lines.
The SDF will be backed up by airstrikes in and around Raqqa from the U.S.-led coalition, which has been carrying out airstrikes in the area for over two years. The campaign to “isolate, and ultimately liberate, Raqqa marks the next step in our coalition campaign plan,” U.S. defense secretary Ashton Carter said. It is expected to take months.
As it loses strength, and ever-larger chunks of its “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will lash out with more attacks around the world. The United States is especially worried that ISIS will use Raqqa to launch attacks against Western targets. But when it’s eventually forced out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS will want to prove its resiliency in neighboring Syria. As the Mosul offensive pushes the group deeper into Syria, scattering and fragmenting it, the biggest losers are likely to be the Syrian people.
One consequence of the Mosul battle has already been to push ISIS fighters and leaders into Syria, especially to Raqqa. The influx of leaders and fighters will make life more miserable for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who live under ISIS’ brutal rule. But the United States and its allies – eager for a large-scale victory against ISIS in Iraq – have not done much planning for the impact that pushing ISIS out of Mosul will have on Syria, beyond vague statements about the SDF-led offensive to retake Raqqa.
The movement into Syria began even before the battle for Mosul. U.S. military officials said that in the days leading up to the Mosul offensive, some of ISIS’ senior leaders fled the city, heading to Syria or other parts of western Iraq that are dominated by Sunni Arabs.
“We have seen movement out of Mosul. We’ve got indications that leaders have left,” Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, said at a news conference in Baghdad on October 19. “A lot of foreign fighters we expect will stay as they’re not able to exfiltrate as easily as some of the local fighters or local leadership, so we expect there will be a fight.”
The influx and entrenchment of ISIS leaders into Syria will make it even more difficult to end the conflict there. The struggle has expanded into a regional proxy war involving Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United States and other powers. Russia and Iran, which are the two main backers of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, are mainly targeting rebel factions opposed to Assad, rather than trying to dislodge ISIS from its bastions.
For its part, Washington does not intend to commit ground troops to oust the jihadists from Raqqa. It will instead rely on the SDF, backed by U.S. airstrikes and special forces. But the offensive on Raqqa is already alienating American allies, especially Turkey. The SDF is anchored by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which includes thousands of Syrian Kurdish fighters. Turkey, which has sent its own troops into Syria and supported some rebel factions to consolidate control of territory near the Turkish-Syrian border, views the YPG and other Syrian Kurdish groups as allies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since the 1980s, PKK rebels have waged an insurgency against the Turkish government, seeking autonomy for Kurdish areas. Turkey insists that Washington must not allow the YPG to take a leading role in ousting ISIS from Raqqa.
But U.S. military officials dismiss these concerns, and insist that the best-trained fighters on the ground are from the YPG. “The only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion,” said Townsend. “We’re going to take the force that we have and we will go to Raqqa soon with that force.”
Pentagon officials say their intelligence shows that ISIS’ plotting in Raqqa is similar to plots and attack preparation that took place for nearly two years in the border town of Manbij, which was the last stop in Syria for jihadists on their way to Europe. The mastermind of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and were sanctioned by ISIS leaders, reportedly spent considerable time in Manbij and received training there. ISIS was finally ousted from Manbij in August.
“Coming out of Manbij, we found links to individuals and plot streams to France, the United States, other European countries,” Townsend said, adding: “We know that this is going on in Raqqa, as well.”
ISIS has been weakened significantly over the past year, after intensive U.S.-led bombing and defeats by its opponents in Iraq and Syria. The group lost thousands of fighters, was forced to relinquish nearly half of the territory it once controlled, and has been cut off from smuggling routes it used to move weapons and reinforcements. But with every setback, it found new ways to adapt.
The most recent example of the group’s resilience is an ominous sign of what may be in store for Syria. On October 21, four days after the Mosul offensive started, ISIS militants launched a surprising counterattack nearly 100 miles (161km) away. Dozens of fighters besieged the oil-rich city of Kirkuk before dawn, setting off gun battles, suicide bombings and sniper attacks. After two days of fighting, most of the assailants were killed, captured or had blown themselves up. Nearly 100 others were also killed, most of them members of the Kurdish security forces. As the militants went on their rampage throughout Kirkuk, they broadcast a message from the loudspeakers of a local mosque: “Islamic State has taken over.”
Kirkuk, which is near some of the richest oil fields in northern Iraq, has been under the control of Kurdish forces for more than two years. The surprise attack by ISIS showed that even while under siege in Mosul, the group could still sow chaos in parts of Iraq far from its strongholds. The Kirkuk offensive also demonstrated that even if it loses Mosul, ISIS would go back to its roots as an insurgency entrenched in the rural Sunni Arab regions of Iraq and Syria – as its predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq, did after losing several urban areas under its control.
As the Mosul battle unfolds, ISIS could become even more deeply rooted in Syria, especially around Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. And as the group is pushed out of urban areas in Iraq, life for Syrians living under ISIS’ control will become more difficult.
Over the past year, the group was already being denied access to revenue sources – including oil and gas smuggling, bank deposits and taxation – that brought in more than $1 billion in 2014. As those sources dry up, ISIS will likely depend on “more traditional methods we see al-Qaida using – whether it’s deep-pocket donors, whether it’s charities, whether it’s NGOs, whether it’s criminal activity,” Daniel Glaser, the U.S. treasury department’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, said at a recent forum in Washington.
With the fall of Mosul, ISIS would lose one of its most important profit centers. In 2015, U.S. officials estimate, ISIS generated about $30 million per month from taxation and extortion in Iraq. In Mosul alone, the group made about $4 million per month in taxation, especially on salaries paid to workers by the central government in Baghdad. But with those revenues drying up as the militants lose territory and lucrative routes for oil smuggling, ISIS leaders will likely impose harsher taxation and extortion schemes on Syrians living under their control.
ISIS will probably find new ways to survive an American-orchestrated offensive on Raqqa. Over time, the group has proved that it can always adapt to military pressure. Unfortunately, the Syrian people will end up paying the price for ISIS’ resiliency.