US-Backed Forces Are Bogging Down in Raqqa

Handing the Syrian army a lead in the race for Euphrates

June 10th last year the Kurdish-dominated SDF had the northern Syrian town of Manbij encircled. Exactly two months later the last ISIS fighter fled and the SDF had control of the entire town.

By June 27th of this year the SDF has completely encircled ISIS-held Raqqa. Two months later the US-backed group (complete with embedded US Special Forces troops and US air and artillery cover) holds just half of the city and is bogged down in tough street-to-street fighting.

Now it’s true that Raqqa, with the pre-war population of 220,000, is three times the size of Manbij. Also, as the first provincial capital they ever captured, it is more important to ISIS. In Manbij the last remaining 500 or so ISIS fighters fled in a convoy mixed with civilians. That is not going to happen here. The chances of a negotiated evacuation are slim as well, seeing the last time SDF and ISIS made such a deal the US bombed retreating ISIS forces regardless.

So there are objective reasons why SDF progress in Raqqa has been slow, but the feeling remains that the US hoped for a faster campaign. Indeed two months ago the Pentagon was saying the SDF would first take Raqqa, and any further offensives would be planned only after that:

Clearly, our focus right now is on the fight in Raqqa. And we’re supporting our, you know, Syrian Democratic Forces there.

So, we are going to see that through. And once we call the liberation, or once Raqqa has been liberated, then we have to see, then, where else is there to go, where else is there ISIS-held territory.

And right now, we know that ISIS-held territory is along the middle Euphrates river valley. But is that going to, you know, still be true at the end of the fight in Raqqa? We’re going to have to see that. We’re three weeks into Raqqa right now. And we’ve made, you know, significant process. But we know that there’s still a — a difficult fight ahead.

So we will have to evaluate and see where ISIS still holds territory after the fight of Raqqa. Clearly, right now, that’s along the middle Euphrates river valley. And, as you asked in your first question, we will continue to strike resources and leaders throughout that middle Euphrates river valley — in Mayadin, Abu Kamal, Al-Qaim.  

But with fighting in Raqqa taking longer than anticipated SDF officials are now saying the next offensive into Deir Ezzor may start within weeks — before the fighting for Raqqa is wrapped up:

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could start its assault on Deir al-Zor “within several weeks” in parallel with an ongoing battle for nearby Raqqa city, Ahmed Abu Khawla told Reuters.

Looking at the size of the area the Syrian army has been able to capture from ISIS while the SDF has been stuck fighting block to block in Raqqa it is easy to understand the anxiety of the SDF and its backers.

Syrian army gains of the past six weeks

After six weeks of constant advances in central Syria the Russian-backed, loyalist camp is now extremely well positioned for a drive into the Euphrates valley, to the encircled city of Deir Ezzor, and perhaps beyond, across the river, so as to preemt US-Kurdish advance into the river valley.

Incidentally as part of the operations this month the Russians and Syrians carried out their first joint helicopter assault of the war landing Syrian paratroopers behind ISIS front lines. Was this a reharsal for a possible later airborne operation to secure a bridgehead on the Euphrates right bank? Possibly. The US-Kurdish forces crossed over to the Euphrates left bank earlier this year in a similar helicopter operation.

The overall commander of the YPJ Kurdish women’s militia says up to two more months are needed to wrap up Raqqa. It is anyone’s guess how far into Deir Ezzor the Syrian army will be by that time.