Capturing the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS's self-declared capital, has been the US military's goal for years. But as the battle begins, the strategic importance of the city may not be what it once was.
As the US military announced the start of the campaign to capture ISIS’s self-declared capital on Tuesday, it downplayed what the fall of the once key city would mean for the goal of destroying the militant group.
The US military can no longer say if the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’s stronghold since 2013, is the hub for ISIS planning attacks on the West. Top ISIS leaders have already moved outside of the city, including members of the administration and media team, Pentagon officials have said. It could not even say if Raqqa is still the de facto ISIS capital. And they warned that even if the Syrian city fell out of ISIS control, ISIS still controls several other cities, some of which are also home to planning operations against the West.
And even if ISIS loses all of its territory, its ideology will live on and could be spread virtually, US military officials concede.
The reasons the US military once said the battle for Raqqa would be the key battle against the terror group may also no longer apply. Rather than being the site of a game-changing battle against ISIS, the city now is part of a long list of battles against the terror group, which has expanded its key elements to several cities, the US military said.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, in a briefing with reporters Tuesday, called the Raqqa operation part of its “sequencing.”
He added: “There is a method to our madness.”
Officials note that Raqqa was where ISIS planned attacks on Paris and Berlin and that there are potentially thousands of ISIS fighters still there make it a real threat. (The State Department made a similar point on Tuesday, when spokesperson Heather Nauert called the city “Ground Zero for ISIS.")
But in announcing the start of the offensive, led by Kurdish and US-trained Arab forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, the top US general in charge of the push said the fall of Raqqa would lead to a “decisive blow” against the physical caliphate, suggesting the effect would be as much psychological as tactical.
“It’s hard to convince new recruits that ISIS is a winning cause when they just lost their twin ‘capitals’ in both Iraq and Syria,” Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, commanding general of the war in Iraq and Syria, said in a statement.
In recent months, the terror group has moved key operations along the Euphrates River Valley to Syrian cities like Mayadin and Deir Ezzour, both largely under ISIS control. Moreover, ISIS controls much of the territory along the Iraqi border and the Iraqi city of al Qaim, the first city on the other side of the northern part of the border. US military officials have hinted that al Qaim could be the next city they aim to wrest out of ISIS’s hands.
“ISIS has routinely demonstrated the foresight and discipline to relocate high value individuals such as leaders as well as advanced bomb makers and chemical weapons experts before anti-ISIS forces can close in,” Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War explained.
The US has hyped the attack on Raqqa for months, and often called the fall of the city urgent in the defeat of ISIS. In July 2016, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, then commander of the war against ISIS, said the fall of “support nodes” like Raqqa would mean they “lose a base of operations. They lose finances. They lose the ability to plan, to create the fake documentation that they need to get around the world. And they lose financial resources.”
In October, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the battle for Raqqa would begin “within weeks.” In December, Townsend told reporters that ISIS was plotting external operations from Raqqa “they still have the ability to motivate, self-radicalize followers, and they still have the ability to plot and cast into motion attacks on the West.”
But by May, US intelligence said that ISIS had moved its chemical weapons experts into a cell stationed in Mayadin. Last month, the US military purportedly killed the founder of ISIS media propaganda wing in Deir Ezzour. During that same period, the US military has confirmed it killed a top ISIS external operations planner, a recruiter and a senior ISIS official. While successes in the overall fight, the latter two examples highlight the somewhat reduced importance of Raqqa,
“The coalition will not defeat the ISIS external operations cell through a linear approach to retaking terrain, especially with a Kurdish-dominated force that cannot project power much further than the outskirts of Raqqa,” Caferella said.
The US estimates there are still as many as 4,000 ISIS fighters in Raqqa, which fell under ISIS control in 2013 and has served as its de facto capital. While the US military has officially refused to give a time estimate for the battle for the city, privately officials believe it could last between two and three months. Even if top leaders are no longer in city, the US military believes the city is lined with explosives, car bombs, house bombs and other traps.
Hundreds of US troops are supporting the battle, Davis said. US Marine M777 Howitzer cannons and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters also are providing firepower.
The US dependency on Kurdish forces to take Raqqa risks alienating the Sunni-dominated city and fracturing already frayed relations with Turkey, which vehemently opposes a US decision to arm the Kurds for Raqqa. Turkey considers the Kurdish elements of the SDF terrorists. Despite that, a week ago, the US said it provided weapons to Raqqa ahead of the battle.
Earlier this week, the US notified Turkey that the start of the battle for Raqqa was imminent, according to Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. The US also said that its weapons would not be used against Turkish forces or citizens, according to the prime minister. On Tuesday, Yildirim said his country would respond if the battle for Raqqa posed a threat to his country.
Turkey is not a part of the ground operation in Raqqa, defense officials said.
Once liberated, “the SDF have stated it will be turned over to a representative body of local civilians who will provide security and governance,” the coalition said in a statement announcing the start of the operation.
US and Iraqi forces are in the final weeks of the battle for ISIS’s Iraqi capital, the city of Mosul, which is about four times larger than Raqqa. That battle began in October.
The battle for Raqqa began overnight as local fighters retook 10 square kilometers outside the eastern portion of the city, according to the Pentagon.
But critics argue that, ultimately, the US military is fighting the last war, not the next one.
“ISIS is working to make its global operations are less dependent on command and control from inside Iraq and Syria while the coalition fixates on tactical objectives in northern Syria,” Caferella said.
Nancy Youssef is a national security correspondent with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.