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Thousands of civilians fleeing Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State terror group in Syria

The composition of the force to mount the final assault on the Sunni Arab city appears to be undecided, as does how the city will be governed without IS

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Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of U.S.-backed Kurdish and Ara fighters, advance in an area northeast of Raqqa, VOA

Syria, April 4, 2017: Thousands of civilians have been fleeing Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State terror group in Syria, in the past few days as airstrikes on the city intensify — a foretaste of when the battle to oust the militants from the besieged city starts in earnest.

But the composition of the force to mount the final assault on the Sunni Arab city appears to be undecided, as does how the city will be governed after IS militants have been expelled.

Will it be the U.S.-backed Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, or some of their aligned Sunni Arab and Turkmen militiamen who will retake Raqqa? Will the Turks play a role with their allied Syrian Arab rebel militias?

Will U.S. combat troops participate in significant numbers because of the tactical difficulties encountered by an indigenous, proxy ground force, much as they have in taking a more forward-leaning role in Mosul than planned?

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Last month, several hundred U.S. Marines were deployed with artillery to northern Syria, to be ready to assist local forces to retake the city, according to U.S. officials, who confirmed another 1,000 troops will be sent to Kuwait to be ready if needed.

At some point during the final assault, U.S. and Kurd forces might stand aside and allow forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to make the final push and seize the city. Some analysts suspect that’s being considered by war planners in the Pentagon and President Donald Trump’s advisers.

Might Trump “judge Assad the best of a sorry lot of choices, and take the plunge to join forces with Damascus?” queried analyst Thanassis Cambanis during a roundtable discussion organized last month on the future of the conflict on Syria by The Century Foundation, a U.S. policy research institute.

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Tillerson in Turkey

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara, the first senior administration official to visit Turkey, to try to seal a deal about the battle for Raqqa and to overcome President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strong objections to Washington’s backing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) militias.

Turkish forces have attacked SDF forces in the past around Manbij, west of Raqqa, forcing the United States to deploy dozens of soldiers on the outskirts of the town in a mission to prevent a repeat of clashes, which risk derailing an assault on Raqqa.

Tillerson appeared to indicate no agreement had been reached in Ankara about how Raqqa should be seized and by whom.

“They are difficult decisions, to be very frank,” he said. “They are not easy, they are very difficult choices that have to be made.”

On Monday, Erdogan increased pressure on Washington, saying his government is planning new offensives this spring against groups deemed terrorist organizations by Ankara, including IS, the outlawed Kurdish PKK, and the PYD’s militia.

There are no signs that Washington intends to end its alliance with the PYD’s militia. U.S. officials say they envisage the Raqqa battle will be similar to the fight in neighboring Iraq, where local indigenous forces have been waging the struggle to retake the northern city of Mosul, the last IS major urban stronghold in that country.

The Pentagon doubts the Turks and their Syrian rebel militias have sufficient capability or skill to wage the urban warfare they will encounter inside Raqqa, or that they will be able to minimize their own casualties or keep the civilian death toll to a minimum.

“The Kurds have been effective partners for us,” a senior Pentagon official told VOA. “Why would we change horses in midstream?”

But the Kurds and their allied Arab militias will also be hard-pressed to limit a bloodbath in a city Islamic State has had plenty of time to prepare to defend. The terror group’s defense tactics have been on vivid and gruesome display for months in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

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Post-IS Raqqa

Analysts and former U.S. diplomats also worry not enough thought is being given to what happens after the militants are expelled from the city, and how and who will administer Raqqa. If those questions are not answered before the assault takes place, the United States could be drawn deeper into Syrian conflict than the Trump administration wants, warn some former diplomats.

They worry Washington could be on the verge of repeating the Iraq War mistakes of 2003, when the Bush administration didn’t plan sufficiently for a post-invasion political order.

“Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011 teach a valuable lesson: Plan carefully for post-combat governance,” said former U.S. diplomat Fred Hof.

Kurdish officials have repeatedly said in recent months they have no interest in administering Raqqa after IS militants are ousted. A local Arab council could be formed to run the city, but it would be beholden to whoever wields post-IS military power in Raqqa.

“If ISIS is going to stay down, it needs to be replaced in these areas by a sufficiently inclusive, consensual political order to short-circuit the cycle of resentment and hate that ISIS feeds off,” analyst Sam Heller said at last month’s roundtable discussion, using an acronym for Islamic State.
-VOA

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Islamic State Using Women, Children as Human Shields to Postpone Defeat

In the meantime, U.S. officials have been talking with other members of the coalition about increasing their help as U.S. troops prepare to leave.

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FILE - U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters sit atop a hill in the desert outside the village of Baghuz, Syria, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

Fighters and families with the Islamic State terror group are clinging to one last sliver of land next to the Euphrates River in Syria, using women, children and possible hostages as human shields in an effort to postpone defeat.

Human rights observers and officials with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say IS followers have been pushed out of the eastern Syrian village of Baghuz and taken refuge in what they describe as a collection of tents. Various officials have described the size of the camps as covering less than one square kilometer.

But efforts by the SDF to deal a final defeat to the terror group’s self-declared caliphate have been slowed due to the presence of the civilians, and efforts to negotiate a surrender have also gone nowhere.

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President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House, Feb. 15, 2019. VOA

Speaking at the White House on Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that’ll be announced over the next 24 hours and many other things.”

In Munich, the top U.S. defense official offered a cautious assessment.

“We have eliminated the group’s hold on over 99 percent of the territory it once claimed as part of its so-called caliphate,” acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan said during a Friday news conference with his German counterpart at the Munich Security Conference.

“We have ensured ISIS no longer holds the innocent people of Syria or Iraq in their murderous, iron fist,” he said, using an acronym for the terror group. “We have destroyed its ability to mass forces, and we have eliminated most of its leadership and significantly diminished its resources.”

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FILE – Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan holds a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

‘Despicable and ghastly acts’

Coalition officials Thursday described SDF efforts in and around Baghuz as “clearance operations,” warning that IS fighters had become so desperate that they were shooting at their wives and children as they sought to flee.

“These utterly despicable and ghastly acts further illustrate their barbaric nature and desperation,” Operation Inherent Resolve Deputy Commander, British Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, said in a statement.

“The end of the physical caliphate is at hand,” he added.

Some IS followers appear to have given up.

Monitors with the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 240 IS fighters surrendered this past week. The U.S.-led coalition and an SDF commander contacted by VOA could not confirm the claim.

They said the SDF also evacuated about 700 people, mostly women and children, from the terror group’s refuge outside Baghuz on Thursday, taking them by cars and trucks to secured areas away from the front.

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FILE – Women and children fleeing from the last Islamic State group’s tiny pocket in Syria sit in the back of a truck near Baghuz, eastern Syria, Feb. 11, 2019. VOA

The SDF itself says over the past several weeks, tens of thousands of civilians have fled from IS.

But they say about 300 hardened IS fighters, many of them foreign, still remain, willing to fight to the death. And some SDF commanders say more civilians are being brought to the tent city, apparently from underground tunnels.

Observers late Thursday reported a resumption of shelling by the SDF and coalition forces, saying it appeared to be another attempt to convince the remaining IS holdouts to give up.

IS threat to remain

Still, even once the last pocket of IS-held territory is taken, U.S. and coalition officials warn the fight will not be over.

Top U.S. military officials have warned the terror group still has 20,000 to 30,000 followers, including fighters, spread across Syria and Iraq. And they worry about the ability of their Syrian partners, in particular, to keep IS in check once U.S. troops withdraw under plans announced by Trump.

The commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel, told CNN on Friday he disagreed with Trump’s decision to call for U.S. forces to leave.

 

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FILE – U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, speaks to reporters during an unannounced visit to a military outpost in southern Syria, Oct. 22, 2018. VOA

“It would not have been my military advice at that particular time. … I would not have made that suggestion, frankly,” he said. “[The caliphate] still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.”

In the meantime, U.S. officials have been talking with other members of the coalition about increasing their help as U.S. troops prepare to leave. But so far, other coalition members, many of whom have no troops on the ground in Syria, have been unwilling to make any specific commitments.

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“I think there’s a tremendous desire to have a security arrangement or mechanism that doesn’t result in a security vacuum. What that is … is still being developed,” a senior defense official said Friday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

“We’ve been pretty clear that this is going to be a deliberate withdrawal,” the official added. “There’s a timeline associated with that that’s conditions-based. We’ve said publicly on a number of occasions that it will be here in months, not weeks and not years.” (VOA)