The fight against ISIS has entered one of its most important phases yet: the battle to retake Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria. Victory there would be a major milestone — but it wouldn't be a knockout punch.
When most people think about Syria, it’s cities like the capital, Damascus, or war-battered Aleppo. That makes sense — Aleppo, for example, was the most important city held by the rebels before it was largely flattened by Syrian troops and Russian warplanes. Around 50,000 people are thought to have been displaced by the fighting there, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (there is no conclusive number for those killed in the city to date).
But right now the most important fight is Raqqa, a once-obscure backwater that has become the epicenter of the war against ISIS.
ISIS has lost 45 percent of its territory in Syria, according to Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The group has continued to hold Raqqa because of how deeply entrenched in the city it is, and because the anti-ISIS coalition has been preoccupied with the push to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul. With that fight effectively over, the coalition now has Raqqa squarely in its crosshairs.
There’s a good reason for that. Capturing Raqqa would mean ISIS loses its nerve center. That would be a massive operational and propaganda loss for the terrorist organization. ISIS would no longer have a capital it uses to attract foreign fighters and plan attacks. And it would squander its prime position in a key city along the Euphrates River Valley — the most important territory ISIS controls in Syria.
Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy leading the 68-member anti-ISIS coalition, knows how important taking Raqqa away from ISIS is. “It's the heart of the ISIS ‘caliphate,’ the hub for foreign fighters, and has been the locus for major attack planning around the world,” he told me.
But as important as the loss of Raqqa will be, it won’t spell the end of ISIS.
“ISIS is actually a global organization,” Jennifer Cafarella, an ISIS expert at the Institute for the Study of War, said in an interview. “It’s simply false that if Raqqa falls, the organization will lose its appeal.”
That’s important to remember. The US-led coalition to defeat ISIS is treating the fight against the terrorist group in a conventional, military manner: Fight the battle, take the enemy’s territory, declare victory. But that’s not how ISIS sees the fight. It sees it as a generational struggle that will continue long after the group has lost control over its territorial holdings. ISIS is held together by its ideology, not its grip on parts of Iraq and Syria.
“ISIS has called on followers to hold the caliphate in their hearts,” Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, told me.
Put another way, a victory at Raqqa will mark a major step forward in the US-led war against the group. The broader fight to stop ISIS’s spread around the world, however, will rage on well into the future.
Why Raqqa matters
The city lies in northern Syria on the Euphrates River, giving the group great access to the river valley. It’s in that region that ISIS holds its most important territory, mostly because key Syrian cities reside in that valley. If ISIS starts ceding control of that area, its loosening grip on the country greatly diminishes.
The city was also important to the group because it provided access to the strategic Tabqa Dam, which controls the country’s water and electrical output. (ISIS had captured it from the Syrian government in August 2014 before finally losing control this May.)
But Raqqa was an odd place for ISIS to plant its flag. It was never much of an important area for the Syrian government, which it had ignored for years. “It’s always been a city that is rather forlorn and neglected by the Syrian state,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, said in an interview.
Still, conquering and governing Raqqa allowed ISIS to tell extremist Muslims the world over that they could come to a literal place where their beliefs were being put into practice. The group also sought to attract engineers, doctors, and electricians to keep the administration of the “state” running.
“When an enemy holds territory, it helps with recruiting, showing their real and perceived strengths, and provides a base of operations,” Matthew Spence, a former top Middle East Pentagon official in the Obama administration, said in an interview.
The city of 200,000 people has been under ISIS rule for the past three years. A house painter in Raqqa described to the BBC what life has been like.
"They slaughtered us," he said. "They told us we were unbelievers, even though we are Muslims from birth, fasting and praying."
The painter wasn’t understating the issue. In preparation for the fight against Syrian Democratic Forces, ISIS has planned to use some of the city’s 50,000 civilians as human shields, the International Rescue Committee told Reuters. Before that, citizens were beheaded for not following ISIS’s rules or even lashed around 40 times simply for cursing, among other punishments, an anti-ISIS activist in Syria told the Guardian.
Today, there are fewer than 2,500 ISIS fighters remaining inside Raqqa, according to the US military command leading the anti-ISIS fight. That’s far fewer than before, as large numbers of ISIS fighters have started to flee the city in anticipation of a big battle with US-backed forces. It’s astonishing, especially since Raqqa was where foreign fighters from more than 100 countries flocked to join ISIS.
But even with so few ISIS fighters defending the territory against better US-backed forces, the battle for Raqqa will be an intense military fight that is likely to take hundreds — if not thousands — of lives.
The fight for Raqqa is about to get intense
The operation to seize Raqqa began on June 6, when US-backed forces started to hammer the city’s limits with the help of coalition airstrikes and artillery fire — support the rebels that will do the actual ground combat still receive to this day.
The pace of that offensive has gotten markedly more intense in recent days. Anti-ISIS fighters have mostly surrounded the city, sealing off escape routes for those ISIS militants who don’t want to risk their lives for the cause anymore. "The city center is completely besieged, and our forces are fighting from all sides," Ali Shervan, a Kurdish SDF fighter, told Kurdistan 24 on June 28.
In effect, it is very difficult for ISIS to escape the city now, which means those left there will likely have no choice but to fight to the death, an outcome McGurk hopes for. “The mission is to make sure ... that any foreign fighter who is here, who joined ISIS from a foreign country, who came into Syria, they will die here in Syria,” he told journalist Jenan Moussa in June.
Those ISIS fighters remaining inside the city have had plenty of time to prepare for the battle, though. For example, in Raqqa’s northeast, ISIS laid down a belt of improvised explosive devices near a sugar factory, according to Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the anti-ISIS military mission.
The Pentagon is currently using airstrikes and US military advisers to help the Syrian Democratic Forces — the US-backed militia helping to defeat ISIS — do the actual on-the-ground fighting inside Raqqa. It won’t be easy.
“The battle for Raqqa will likely be a brutal, house-to-house, room-to-room battle,” Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former Marine infantry officer during the 2003 Iraq War, told me.
The Pentagon, which has spent more than a decade waging this kind of urban warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, currently has around 500 troops inside Syria charged with training the anti-ISIS fighters, striking ISIS soldiers and oil assets from the skies, and also firing artillery at targets in the city. The American forces consist of special operations forces and a unit of US Marines, who were sent to Raqqa in May.
They will not be fighting door to door — at least for now — meaning US casualties are likely to remain low in the near term.
Citizens of Raqqa won’t be as lucky. Many of the city’s civilians and the estimated 40,000 children still in Raqqa will inevitably be caught in the crossfire. Since June 1, the United Nations Human Rights Office estimates around 173 civilians have already been killed there.
And ISIS has no qualms about killing noncombatants, having murdered at least 230 of them in Mosul as residents tried to flee the fighting there, reported the Atlantic.
War is extremely hard to predict, but most outside experts believe the US-backed forces will eventually come out on top, even if the fighting is bloodier, and lengthier, than expected.
“ISIS cannot hold out against the US military and thousands of decently capable light infantry indefinitely,” Faysal Itani, a Syria expert at the nonpartisan Atlantic Council think tank, said in an interview.
As of now, though, the anti-ISIS coalition has no estimate for when the fight might end. “It will be over when it is over and there is still a lot of fighting to go,” said Michael Lavallee, a State Department spokesperson.
Even once the city is finally retaken, meanwhile, the military victory in Raqqa means the fight against the group will shift to a counterterror one conducted in nations around the world, including the United States.
ISIS will continue to be a global organization
ISIS leaders knew this day would come. Experts say the group has been signaling since May 2016 that it would lose territory — including its capitals — in Iraq and Syria, but it still plans to inspire followers and terrorist attacks in other countries.
Indeed, former ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani outlined the group’s thinking in his last speech before he was killed in Syria later that year.
“Victory is when the enemy is defeated. Do you think, O America, that defeat is the loss of a city or a land?” he said in a speech at the end of May before he was killed in a US airstrike on August 30. “No, defeat is the loss of willpower and the desire to fight.”
It doesn’t matter to ISIS how many of its militants or how much of its territory it loses as long as the ideology continues to animate its supporters, notes Cafarella. “This organization expects to lose thousands and thousands of fighters,” she said, indicating the group plans for the fight to last many years. “This is a highly sophisticated military organization that is waging a generational war.”
And ISIS’s strategy appears to be working.
According to the State Department, ISIS is fully operational in at least 18 countries. In six of those countries — Egypt, Indonesia, Mali, the Philippines, Somalia, and Bangladesh — the group hopes to host branches of the main version in Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, as of February 2017, ISIS conducted or inspired attacks in 29 countries other than Iraq and Syria, killing upward of 2,000 people. The group’s most notable strikes include the Paris attacks in November 2015, which killed 130 people and injured hundreds; a July 2016 truck attack in Nice that killed 86 people; and the bombing of the Brussels airport that killed 32 travelers.
ISIS is basically waiting out the anti-ISIS coalition effort in the Middle East, expecting to lose territory in the meantime. But, Cafarella explained, this generation of fighters knows it may not see the full realization of the group’s vision. That’s for the next set of ISIS followers who will reconstitute the group after the US and others leave.
“ISIS intends to lose the cities in such a way that round three is even more successful,” she noted. And after that, the seeds will be planted to ensure the group sticks around for a very long time. “Maybe round four, a generation from now, is permanent.”
There’s no post-Raqqa strategy
In many ways, the end of the Raqqa war will only be the beginning of the fight for Raqqa’s future.
“The key question is what comes next: Who governs Raqqa? How will a new government be responsive to Syrians and prevent a terrorist group like ISIS from taking over?” Moulton told me. He and others in Congress are increasingly worried about this.
So is Spence, who spent three years working on the Mideast during the Obama administration. He believes a military victory at Raqqa is not enough. It needs to be supplemented by improving governability in Syria, a place with much ungoverned territory.
“If you have the military victory at Raqqa, and then you don’t add that to working to build up the opposition, finding ways to turn the population — which has been terrorized by ISIS — more to our side, I think really [the victory will] be more short-term,” Spence said.
It’s unclear what the full post-Raqqa plan is. But the anti-ISIS coalition has been making some headway.
It’s currently helping to set up a functioning government in Raqqa, identified now as the 100-member Raqqa Civilian Council, a group made of up of US-allied militias. It’s the council’s job to restore normal order to the city after ISIS is gone.
In addition, US special operations forces are training 3,500 militiamen made up of local, vetted fighters to keep the peace in Raqqa, reports Foreign Policy. However, US special operations forces are only conducting a week-long training program for them. That’s likely not enough time to master crowd control, know how to set up checkpoints — or learn to stop new terrorist attacks from ISIS remnants in the city.
The city’s new governors and its protectors will have a lot of on-the-job learning to do as they try to stabilize the city. That job will only be made harder as refugees come back, adding pressures on officials to ensure they are taken care of.
As for ISIS itself, its remaining leadership and fighters will likely head to Syrian cities like Deir ez-Zor, Mayadin, or Abu Kamal. Some, in fact, are already there. And that’s going to be a problem.
The stated goal by the anti-ISIS coalition is the military defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq — wherever it may be in those countries. Now that ISIS fighters are moving eastward, coalition fighters will have to as well. That puts the United States on a collision course with Russia and Iran — two countries that don’t want the US meddling in Syria’s east.
After all, Moscow and Tehran are fighting to protect Bashar al-Assad. The Assad regime is hoping to have some semblance of control over that part of the country. But if the US goes there, those hopes diminish. That’s why Assad, Russia, and Iran will do their best to keep the US out — or push it out, if necessary.
But for now, the fight is Raqqa. As for what comes next, that remains to be seen, but Moulton thinks it’s necessary for US and coalition officials to offer a clearer strategy.
“We owe an answer to the people of Raqqa and the troops risking their lives to liberate it,” he told me.
Right now, the answer seems like the city will fall but ISIS will survive — and no one has a plan for how to change that grim reality.