Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Campaign for Ar-Raqqa City: June 20 – July 17, 2017

By Christopher Kozak

The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) achieved small but significant gains against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City between June 20 and July 17. The SDF completed its full encirclement of Ar-Raqqa City on June 29 after seizing a number of villages on the southern bank of the Euphrates River. Operation Inherent Resolve Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stressed that the maneuver emplaced a “physical band” that would “prevent escape or reinforcement” by ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City. The SDF later breached the heavily-fortified Old City of Ar-Raqqa on July 3 after coalition airstrikes destroyed two twenty-five meter sections of the historic Rafiqah (Old City) Walls. These breaches enabled partner forces on the ground to avoid pre-positioned ISIS defenses at existing channels through the wall, including prepared direct and indirect fire zones, land mines, IEDs, and SVBIEDs. The SDF simultaneously continued to secure incremental gains along both the eastern and western axes of Ar-Raqqa City.

The battle for Ar-Raqqa City nonetheless stands to protract over the next several months. The SDF has reportedly encountered intensified resistance and “better-emplaced defenses” over the past four weeks following initial rapid gains in districts on the outskirts of Ar-Raqqa City. ISIS has extensively leveraged innovative tools to slow coalition advances, including drone-borne munitions and a new type of motion-activated IED. The SDF has struggled for over a month to penetrate one “significant defensive IED belt” on the northern outskirts of Ar-Raqqa City. The SDF must also contend with continued pressure to protect and evacuate the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 civilians that remain trapped in Ar-Raqqa City. These challenges have been exacerbated by the poor combat performance of elements of the Syrian Arab Coalition of the SDF. Most clearing operations are reportedly led by the Syrian Kurdish YPG while allied Sunni Arabs – often suffering from lower standards of training, equipment, and motivation – serve as the rear holding force. ISIS has exploited these seams to mount successful local counteroffensives against several districts originally cleared by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. These failures highlight future problems likely to be faced by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in the establishment of a reliable local holding force such as the Raqqa Internal Security Forces.