U.S. Builds Force to Retake Islamic State’s Syrian Headquarters

As Iraq offensive begins, coalition looks to drive militants from Raqqa

A member of the Kurdish YPG force in Syria fighting against Islamic State positions in Raqqa in January.
A member of the Kurdish YPG force in Syria fighting against Islamic State positions in Raqqa in January. PHOTO: JACOB SIMKIN/NURPHOTO/ZUMA PRESS

Oct. 19, 2016 5:30 a.m. ET

With an assault under way to dislodge Islamic State from its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, the U.S. is working to assemble a force across the border to retake the extremists’ de facto capital in Syria.

Top U.S. officials have met in recent weeks with members of the anti-Islamic State coalition, including Turkey, Kurdish leaders in Syria and the U.K., trying to hammer out an agreement to launch an offensive soon on the city of Raqqa.

Such an operation would aim to isolate the extremists in the Syrian city, limit their ability to reinforce its satellite strongholds across Iraq and Syria and seal off escape routes, as the flight of fighters is both a concern for the region and a terrorist threat to Europe.

The plan is complicated by the limited American military role on the ground in Syria, where a few dozen Special Operation Forces work with Turkey and its allies, supported by U.S. and coalition airstrikes.

Iraqi Forces Begin Battle to Retake Mosul

Iraqi coalition forces launched an offensive against Islamic State in Mosul on Monday. Government troops and some 5,000 Kurdish Peshmerga forces advanced toward the outskirts of Iraq’s second-largest city.

That leaves the U.S. to rely on a rancorous alliance that is challenged by distrust between Turkey and the Kurds and between Kurdish fighters and Arab Sunni forces.

The U.S. is trying to deliver a crippling blow to Islamic State before President Barack Obama leaves office in January. Seizing the group’s main strongholds in Iraq and Syria could fracture its core leadership based there, deprive them of their claim to be building an Islamic Caliphate, and restrict the group’s ability to coordinate with affiliates in other parts of the world.

Twin Targets

The U.S. hopes to fracture Islamic State’s leadership with a ground assault on its Syrian capital of Raqqa alongside the offensive on the group’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul.

Some U.S. officials hope to launch the fight for Raqqa quickly so that more Islamic State fighters can’t retreat there from Mosul, as dozens have in the past week according to a fighter with the group and Syrian rebels.

Complicating U.S. efforts to reach consensus on the Raqqa battle plan, Turkey opposes U.S. proposals to use a Kurdish-led force to take part in the Raqqa offensive, and wants Arab rebels to spearhead the operation.

Some Western officials also say the Kurdish-led force could heighten ethnic conflict in the majority-Arab city, and that the prospect of a Kurdish-led assault is already driving Arab recruits there to Islamic State.

Arab rebels, meanwhile, are bogged down fighting the Syrian government elsewhere. U.S. officials are skeptical of Turkey’s ability to quickly train and arm enough Sunni Arab fighters to replace the highly effective Kurdish fighters.

“We feel a sense of urgency to put more pressure on Raqqa, at a minimum to isolate it,” said a senior U.S. official. “We believe it’s important to do Raqqa sooner rather than later. The Turks do not feel that same sense of urgency.”

The Iraqi military, backed by the U.S., launched its offensive on Monday against Mosul, the country’s second largest city and the biggest population center under Islamic State control. In Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition is carrying out airstrikes, providing artillery support, and relying on elite American troops to help the Iraqi military in the battle for Mosul. In the battle plan, Kurdish forces will help secure a perimeter while relying on Sunni Arab forces to fight Islamic State in the heart of the city.

U.S. officials are considering a similar approach in Raqqa. Islamic State has held the city for nearly three years and used it as a base to organize terrorist attacks abroad. Raqqa had a prewar population of about 250,000 and saw an influx of Syrians from more war-torn parts of the country in recent years. Islamic State keeps some of its most prized assets in Raqqa, including Western hostages and heavy weaponry.

The Syrian government and Russia have said they, too, have plans to retake the city, but their momentum has stalled as they focus their efforts instead on fighting rebels in Aleppo.

An estimated 10,000 fighters are needed to retake Raqqa, according to Western officials.

Turkish officials said they prefer to wait until the coalition can launch the battle without relying on the Kurdish group known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a group that leaders in Ankara consider a terrorist threat to their country. Turkey has set similar conditions in the past but has then tacitly accepted America’s cooperation with the YPG.

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces prepare to fire a mortar shell toward positions held by Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Syria, in May.
Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces prepare to fire a mortar shell toward positions held by Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Syria, in May. PHOTO: RODI SAID/REUTERS

The YPG’s role in a Raqqa offensive also needs to be negotiated. For their participation, American officials said, the Kurds are asking for political support for their efforts to create an autonomous region in northern Syria called Rojava, which is opposed by both the U.S. and Turkey.

Plans to enlist Arab rebels who could lead the offensive are also facing complications. The strongest groups are occupied fighting the Syrian government in neighboring Aleppo province, while hundreds of Turkish-backed rebels are spread thin fighting Islamic State bastions in northern Syria 100 miles west of Raqqa.

As an alternative, the U.S. is reaching out to Arab tribes in Raqqa province, according to tribesmen and Syrian rebels familiar with the negotiations. That recruiting effort could yield several thousand fighters, the tribesmen said.

The Turkish military is training up to 1,500 Syrian tribesmen in southern Turkey, according to a tribesman who is recruiting fighters.

The YPG makes up the backbone of a militant coalition called Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The U.S. has lauded the SDF as an inclusive force of Arabs and Kurds. Backed by the U.S., the SDF has retaken territory across northern Syria from Islamic State.

In the process, the SDF has displaced Arab civilians while carving out a semiautonomous Kurdish state that stretches nearly the length of Turkey’s 565-mile border with Syria.

The SDF’s gains have prompted Arab recruits to join Islamic State to protect their homes from the Kurdish force.

Some officials from the U.S., U.K. and France said there is a concern that a Kurdish-led offensive on Raqqa would provide a recruitment boon for Islamic State, an overwhelmingly Arab city.

Islamic State has warned residents in Raqqa that the SDF will commit violations against Arab citizens and displace them from the city, according to a resident of Raqqa that managed to escape the city and enter Turkey last month. Hundreds of new recruits are believed to have joined Islamic State in Raqqa out of fear of Kurdish territorial ambitions, a French diplomat said.

Some Arab units of the SDF are starting to oppose the group’s Kurdish domination. Liwaa Tahrir Raqqa, an Arab faction, defected from the SDF last month over Kurdish violations against Arab civilians. Ahmad Hisso Araj, a spokesman for the SDF, denies any wrongdoing by the group.

Write to Maria Abi-Habib at maria.habib@wsj.com and Dion Nissenbaum atdion.nissenbaum@wsj.com



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