No one is coming to rescue Islamic State’s capital

November 9, 2015
Militant Islamist fighters waving flags, travel in vehicles as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said. Picture taken June 30, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR3WKTZ

Militant Islamist fighters waving flags take part in a military parade in Syria’s northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

It’s no secret that Washington wants Raqqa, Islamic State’s proclaimed “capital” in Syria, to fall sooner rather than later. President Barack Obama has announced that he is deploying Special Operations forces inside Kurdish-controlled regions of Syria. The United States recently dropped some 50 tons of ammunition for rebel groups in Syria. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s armed People’s Protection Units gathered up most of it. Allied warplanes, and the occasional errant Russian one, pound the city from the skies.

“We will soon announce zero hour,” the leader of one U.S.-backed rebel group claimed, “for the beginning of the battle of liberation from oppression and persecution.”

Yet the coalition will likely run into two big problems if they don’t anticipate and plan for what will happen on the day after the city falls. Taking a city — especially one that has been ruled by a terror group for any length of time — comes with all manner of frightening possibilities, including general mayhem, a humanitarian crisis and a brutal settling of scores at the hands of the liberators.

First, however, expect the fight to be long, bloody and dangerous. A significant ground force could be required to expel Islamic State fighters, who are heavily armed and well-dug in, and then free the city of 200,000 people.

Civilians and Civil Defence members work at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa, eastern Syria, which is controlled by the Islamic State November 11, 2014. REUTERS/Nour Fourat  (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR4DRI3

Civilians and Civil Defence members work at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa, controlled by Islamic State, November 11, 2014. REUTERS/Nour Fourat RTR4DRI3

Consider the devastation wrought on the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobani. House-to-house combat was required to keep Islamic State from seizing control of it. In Tikrit, Ramadi and other cities in Iraq, the militants have shown themselves willing to booby-trap vast swaths of territory to stymie efforts by liberating forces.

So, who will free Raqqa?

The answer remains unclear because there doesn’t seem to be many interested in carrying out this difficult mission. It doesn’t look like the Kurds are spoiling to take the largely Arab city. The United States will not be sending in significant ground forces to do the job. Turkey seems disinclined to send its forces across the border to wage war, particularly given Ankara’s hostility to most Kurdish insurgents. The various groups that make up the Free Syrian Army are far too weak to take on Islamic State directly.

In addition, the coalition fighting against Islamic State is certainly not eager for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers to march back into the city.

So, in reality, there is no ground force being assembled to accomplish this goal.

But what if Islamic State is indeed expelled from the city, perhaps by some fighting force backed by allied airpower and small groups of U.S. Special Operations and CIA forces on the ground? At that point, perhaps Washington can replicate its 2001 success of pushing the Taliban out of Kabul.

Militant Islamist fighters in military vehicles parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said. REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3WIYY

Militant Islamist fighters parade along the streets of Raqqa province June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

As much as half the city could well be flattened in the battle. So once the shooting ends, any liberating military would quickly confront a significant infrastructure and refugee problem. This invariably would lead to the second big conundrum: the critical effort of providing an effective government.

Who would rule Raqqa the day after it is liberated? What would happen to all the displaced people fleeing to or from the city? Recall the city’s tribal elders welcomed the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups a few years ago. But Islamic State pushed all the rebels out when they proved unable or unwilling to govern the city. It is uncertain if any of these political groups can provide the force necessary to keep Islamic State at bay while maintaining law and order in the city.

As for the outside groups, from the Kurds to the Turks, it could quickly shift from liberation to occupation. A few ugly turns of events could make Raqqa look a lot like Baghdad in 2005. There is already concern that a Kurdish force will take revenge for Islamic State’s cruelties in Kobani and elsewhere. Islamic State could also go underground and emerge later to set off car bombs and deploy suicide attackers to spread mayhem. Concrete blast walls would go up all over the city. Daily life would become difficult to maneuver.

If U.S. decision makers in the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence community aren’t considering these potential problems systematically, failure could result. Rather than focusing on the adrenaline-pumping aspects of bombing runs or counting Islamic State casualties, the administration should be thinking about how to provide security, jobs and sanitation for the citizens of Raqqa. For without that, Washington would likely again create a situation ripe for chaos and anarchy.

More troubling, the citizens of Raqqa might begin to view Islamic State as better civic leaders – as has happened in other regions of Syria. That would be a headache for decades to come.

Without a large stabilizing force and an effective system of government that restores some semblance of normal life, the coalition would likely fail to achieve its objectives of liberating Raqqa — or any major slice of Islamic State-held territory — for very long.

The partners must start focusing on what might happen the day after liberation long before that day arrives. The complicated drawn-out process of rebuilding a society won’t make headlines. But if Washington and its allies are serious about defeating Islamic State, they need to think about what happens the day after they retake the city.

22 comments

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Not our problem. Islam will have to police itself.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The Russians should rule with Raqqa till the end of times..

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Mayhem is our Game what happens afterwards is not of our concern. Just check out all our previous wars

Posted by cynical175 | Report as abusive

Given US intelligence capabilities why do they not just target all oil producing and transporting installations in Daech territory continuously over the next couple of months,plus their resupply routes from Turkey? Taking Raqqa comes much later in the scenario when Daech has been significantly weakened and when all circulation to and from Raqqa has been blocked for a few months. The question that needs to be answered is why haven’t they done so already? Won’t their “allies” let them?

Posted by captainbwana | Report as abusive

Given US intelligence capabilities why do they not just target all oil producing and transporting installations in Daech territory continuously over the next couple of months,plus their resupply routes from Turkey? Taking Raqqa comes much later in the scenario when Daech has been significantly weakened and when all circulation to and from Raqqa has been blocked for a few months. The question that needs to be answered is why haven’t they done so already? Won’t their “allies” let them?

Posted by captainbwana | Report as abusive

Given US intelligence capabilities why do they not just target all oil producing and transporting installations in Daech territory continuously over the next couple of months,plus their resupply routes from Turkey? Taking Raqqa comes much later in the scenario when Daech has been significantly weakened and when all circulation to and from Raqqa has been blocked for a few months. The question that needs to be answered is why haven’t they done so already? Won’t their “allies” let them?

Posted by captainbwana | Report as abusive

Given US intelligence capabilities why do they not just target all oil producing and transporting installations in Daech territory continuously over the next couple of months,plus their resupply routes from Turkey? Taking Raqqa comes much later in the scenario when Daech has been significantly weakened and when all circulation to and from Raqqa has been blocked for a few months. The question that needs to be answered is why haven’t they done so already? Won’t their “allies” let them?

Posted by captainbwana | Report as abusive

If Toyota would just install remote off-switches in their pickups…. Islamic State would have no army. Some dealership in Ohio could just hit the kill switch and turn ISIS off. Because if you can’t move in the desert… you die.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

What Russia should do in Syria is use high altitude nuclear explosion which will destroy all electronic devices and all transportation then job will be easy.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Hm.. Nobody is taking back Raqqa, only Russia and Iran care enough to prop up Assad. The U.S. is fighting a domestic media war. It would be nice to restore a semblance of a municipal government there, and to have peace in Syria, and peace on earth..

Posted by SaigonQ2 | Report as abusive

[Of the 1.25 million battle casualties incurred by the United States in World War II, including both military personnel killed in action and wounded in action, nearly one million occurred in the twelve-month period from June 1944 to June 1945.

Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima had a sizable military garrison.]

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

U.S. should just stick with the Kurds. The U.S. should directly supply the Kurds with heavy weapons. After the Kurds take back Sinjar, Tel Afar, and Mosul, they will have to fight the Iraqi Shite militias; ergo, they will need heavy weapons.

Forget Raqqa. Let the Iranians and Russians take this city.

Posted by Wgward | Report as abusive

Revenge is something we should care the least about. These lowlifes deserve the worst. Let the people go a them. An example needs to be set with these inhuman savages that this will never be repeated again.

Posted by BigSilverback | Report as abusive

This article is a good assessment of the needs to come.

Assuming the hostages in Raqqa are non-Shia, why not ask the Sunni leaders in the region to form a loose oversight (federal) government to support the local city-state jurisdictions regained from ISIS? Who says the territories have to be contiguous? The new Federal government could support the cities in “national” security and law along with a Marshall Plan – like economic stimulus package, while the cities would retain jurisdiction over local cultural and economic projects.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

Nobody is taking back Raqqa, only Russia and Iran care enough to prop up Assad. The U.S. is fighting a domestic media war. It would be nice to restore a semblance of a municipal government there, and to have peace in Syria, and peace on earth..

Posted by Shannongr | Report as abusive

Somewhere, Saddam Hussein is laughing his butt off.

Posted by GeorgeBurdell | Report as abusive

Raqqa is not our problem. Work on destroying Raqqa, not taking over territory. Isis will simply move leaving us a mess. Bomb actual military targets if we must but scatter the flock.

Posted by waqaa | Report as abusive

There can be a Three Stage campaign:

1. Leaflet Bombs to tell the Inhabitants to flee the Coming Attack.

2. Carpet Bomb the City to Dust.

3. Keep Surveillance on Everyone who leaves the City

Posted by oneStarman | Report as abusive

China needs come out support the West. play a good positive role in the World . All the Western world is for legal rights and legal protections
of a true justice system of laws, not men , laws. All individual human-beings each one has precious value — and each one should be free to feel and believe and think and act as free human-being without any fears.
The good free people of this world will gladly always welcome Chinese peoples everywhere. Stand beside us now China and all chinese people.
The good and beautiful of the world — the best is yet to come .

Posted by mark99 | Report as abusive

Certainly does sound like a lot of problems, all right.
I’m glad they aren’t ours.

Posted by glennday | Report as abusive

Raqqa is a Sunni Muslim populated city. That is why ISIS is comfortable there. If we want peace in that region then we should allow people of different religions and different nationalities live separately. American and European and Russian governments do not understand local realities in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Libya. That is why American and other interventions bring only more wars and more instabilities. So called War on Terror brings only death, destruction, and more terror.

Posted by JoeCM70 | Report as abusive

Surround the city with Peshmerga and Iraqi Sunni fighters stop everyone and everything from going in only allow people out and check them for weapons before transporting them to safe zones.Take out the water and electricity The people will leave or die of thirst then flatten the city.

Posted by Steve_hi | Report as abusive