May 31, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Assault on Raqqa

• In Raqqa, Mosul, and elsewhere, the machinations of regional powers have superseded the military campaign against the Islamic State

• Turkey strongly objects to Kurdish involvement in the campaign to retake Raqqa; military realities have long given way to strategic geopolitical considerations

• The Islamic State would have been defeated years ago if its many opponents had been united in their goals and if the regional environment favored collective action over competition

• The broader fight against the Islamic State does not concern the terrorist group as much as it does regional and sectarian interests.


If the battle against the so-called Islamic State were merely one of military capabilities, the fight for Raqqa would have been over before it had begun. The eventual military defeat of the Islamic State in cities like Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa is near certain, though it will be costly and time-consuming. Preventing the eventual return of the Islamic State, however, will be altogether impossible absent the overhaul of the regional environment and the eradication of ethno-sectarian antagonism. While these precipitating factors remain in place, they work to prevent the group’s complete dismantling and ultimate defeat. 

The Islamic State was never as strong as its opponents were divided. The group possesses undeniable military strength—and a significant stockpile of weapons—but its real power has always lain in the scattered nature of its opposition. This dynamic persists, even as a broad coalition assembles against the group and batters it in its strongholds. The Islamic State's ability to strike out in attacks across the region—all while under significant pressure in its proclaimed capitals in Syria and Iraq—is a defining trait of a resilient terrorist group. It is also a sign, however, that the Islamic State is benefiting from the weaknesses of its opposition.

Turkey, a key member of the anti-Islamic State coalition, has long expressed strong opposition to the most effective anti-Islamic State fighting force. The Kurdish forces of northern Syria, which have undertaken some of the most successful and costly battles against the Islamic State, have been empowered and enabled by the United States for several years. However, fears in Ankara of a credible Kurdish proto-government are superseding fears surrounding the continued existence of the Islamic State. As a result, Turkish objections have seriously delayed the campaign to retake Raqqa. In preparing for the battle for Raqqa, the bulk of the effort has focused on the geopolitical consequences rather than the military details. Managing who enters and ultimately holds Raqqa is as important as how it is initially reclaimed. 

The Islamic State’s grip on Raqqa is less a military reality than a geopolitical consequence. The factors that allowed the group to rise, gain territory, and fill its ranks with fighters from across the world are not reflective of the group’s actual powers, but the environment in which it formed. The many intertwining and competing regional dynamics of the wars in Syria and Iraq have inescapably contributed to the longevity of the Islamic State. Its continued resistance of military defeat reveals that its adversaries have been disjointed and myopic in their strategic response to the group, and as a result, have considerably lengthened its life as a proto-state. 


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