October 18, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The Fall of Raqqa
Since January 2014, the Syrian city of Raqqa has been both the geographic heart and self-proclaimed capital of the so-called Islamic State as it made the leap from terrorist group to proto-terror state. The fall of Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014, may have been the group’s high point, in terms of notoriety and territorial and material gain. Capturing the city paved the way for the Islamic State to proclaim itself the new caliphate—and allowed it to seize hundreds of millions of dollars in assets as well as heavy military equipment abandoned by fleeing Iraqi troops. But occupying Raqqa gave the Islamic State a place from which it could both administer its gains and plot attacks against the West.
On October 16, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) proclaimed victory over the Islamic State in Raqqa, claiming only mine and improvised explosive device clearing operations remained to be completed. On October 17, U.S. officials declined to completely confirm that claim, saying only that 90% of the city was in SDF control, with combat operations still ongoing against perhaps 100 remaining Islamic State fighters.
The Islamic State has been in free fall in terms of military losses for more than half a year now, and has lost 87% of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. Losing Mosul to a much-improved Iraqi military (combined with Popular Mobilization Forces militias) was likely the largest military defeat in terms of casualties, material, and strategic importance for the Islamic State. Losing Raqqa, however, should be seen as the largest symbolic defeat the group has experienced. The capital of the so-called caliphate is now in the hands of U.S. and western-backed SDF forces, and no amount of online propaganda by the Islamic State can spin that reality to its advantage.
It took four months of intense fighting by the SDF to take Raqqa; a battle that, in the most conservative estimates, left more than a thousand civilians dead. The SDF is directly supported by the U.S. military and has a sizable Kurdish component—always a problematic issue when it comes to holding and governing retaken territory, given the intense objections of Turkey and some Arab rebel forces to any form of Kurdish control.
The fall of Raqqa doesn’t mean the fall of the Islamic State as a military force. The majority of the group’s Syrian fighting capability is now squeezed along the Euphrates River near Deir Azour, a very different situation than the battlefield around Raqqa, since the Assad regime, heavily supported by Russian and Iranian forces, is making an all-out effort to retake the vital region before the SDF. The Islamic State will certainly lose militarily in Deir Azour as it has everywhere else, but it will likely be at the hands of a combined assault by Assad regime, Russian and Iranian forces. SDF and U.S. forces will not be able to operate freely in that area; both for fear of provoking a larger fight with Russia and because neither Syria nor Turkey want Kurdish forces controlling the areas oil fields once the righting ends.
Like many other cities in Syria and Iraq, Raqqa has been essentially ruined by the fighting, and will require resources and political stability that probably aren’t forthcoming any time soon. The Islamic State will persist as an extremely strong terrorist group for years in both countries, given how ripped the social, political, economic, and ethnic fabric of the region is after so many years of war. Still, as seen in the celebration of SDF fighters in Raqqa, stripping the Islamic State of its territory—and its capital, in particular—may not offer a full solution to the region’s multilayered crisis, but it is a crucial step on the road to recovery.
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