The crucial phase in the war against the Islamic State is imminent; the battle to liberate the Iraqi city Mosul has begun. That has military planners speeding up preparations for the corresponding operation into Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the terror group’s self-proclaimed caliphate. But in the rush to rob the Islamic State of territory, scant attention is being paid to what happens the day after the city falls.
Inside the Obama administration, there is concern in some quarters that the military planning for retaking Raqqa is outpacing the planning needed to make sure that the city does not descend into new chaos or follow-on conflict once liberated. There’s no agreed-upon governance plan, no comprehensive humanitarian response and no consensus on who will provide security for the area once the terrorists are ousted, administration officials told me.
No one thinks the mostly Kurdish force, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, preparing to move on Raqqa could occupy the Arab city peacefully. Sunni Arab rebel groups are already stretched thin throughout Syria’s vast northeast. Turkish forces inside Syria complicate the picture even more. The battle itself promises to be long and bloody. Unlike in Iraq, there’s no host government to cooperate with and the scarce U.S. special forces in Syria can’t go near the actual fighting.
Nevertheless, many top officials believe that the need to begin the Raqqa operation outweighs the weaknesses in the plan and the risks inherent in not knowing what happens next. For one thing, some officials argue, the Islamic State may right now be preparing terrorist attacks against the West inside the city.
“There’s an imperative to start moving on Raqqa,” said one senior administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We need to get after these guys, because if we don’t they are going to hit us and our partners in a fairly dramatic way.”
The operation will be conducted in two parts: an isolation phase of an undetermined length followed by an attack phase. The operation is not imminent, officials said, but ideally it should follow the Mosul operation closely so terrorist leaders can’t just escape from Iraq to Syria.
Preparations are already well underway. The U.S. military is arming and training SDF units and recruiting Arab rebels willing to participate. The administration is considering direct arming of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia for the operation, over Turkey’s objections. Officials know there are limits to what Kurdish troops should be allowed to do.
“We’re not going to have the YPG go in and hold Raqqa. We are actively recruiting an Arab force, and we’ll have as many Arabs as possible,” the senior administration official said. “If you want to build another force to do it, Daesh will be in Raqqa another two years. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got.”
Not all administration officials agree that Raqqa should be liberated as soon as possible. Some advocate slowing the preparations and waiting for more pieces to fall into place. Recent victories over the Islamic State in the nearby Manbij pocket in Syria are still fresh and fragile. Tensions are high between the Turkish and Kurdish forces eyeing each other there. Arab rebel groups have inflicted heavy losses but also have taken them.
“Inside the administration, there are those who would advocate taking their time, having a more competent stabilization force and developing a plan for the day after,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. He said rushing too fast into Raqqa is “setting us up for a disaster.”
There must be a clear understanding of how long SDF forces will stay inside Raqqa and who will displace them when they leave, he said. And all of the anti-Islamic State forces have to find a way to temporarily set their differences aside.
“We need to hold back on Raqqa and make sure this whole Turkish-Kurdish-opposition-SDF conflict finds some kind of detente. More than a halt in fighting, there needs to be some sort of agreement here,” said Lister. “The implications of getting this wrong could be huge.”
The intra-administration debate over the Raqqa operation is part and parcel of the overall split between those who want to prioritize the fight against the Islamic State above all else and those who believe the Islamic State can only be truly defeated as part of a holistic solution for Syria. If history is any guide, the counterterrorism-focused folks will win the day.
Winning the battles against the terrorists is the easy part. Stabilizing places like Raqqa is the real challenge. Sometimes that necessitates taking our time.