US reluctant to verify Kurds-led offensive on IS Raqqa stronghold in Syria

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) north of Raqqa in Syria. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) north of Raqqa in Syria. Photograph: Rodi Said/Reuters

Reuters – Although a U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian armed groups announced the kickoff of the offensive on Sunday, U.S. officials caution the fighters will first try to seal off and isolate the Islamic State stronghold, a process that could take two months or longer.

As a result, the victor of Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election almost certainly will inherit the job of routing the militants from the city from which they have run their shrinking territories in Syria and Iraq, overseen branches from West Africa to South Asia and plotted attacks in Western Europe and elsewhere.

“There is no available force capable of taking Raqqa in the near future,” said one U.S. official. Another said some of the needed Arab forces were still in training. Like seven other officials interviewed for this report, they requested anonymity to discuss the issue.

U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, played down the idea that seizing Raqqa would be quick or easy, saying the first job was sealing off the city.

“We always advertised that the isolation phase is going to take months,” Dunford was quoted as saying on Sunday by a U.S. defense department reporter traveling with him in Turkey.

Dunford’s visit to Ankara came as the Obama administration is enmeshed in a delicate balancing act between NATO ally Turkey and rival Syrian Kurdish forces trained and equipped by the United States.

The U.S. plan for Raqqa calls for an assault force of thousands of fighters from the Kurdish Peoples Defense Units, known as the YPG, and Arabs whose job it would be to take and hold the city itself, U.S. officials said.

However, U.S. special operations forces in northern Syria have yet to recruit enough Arabs to take and hold the Arab-dominated city, they said. Some U.S. officials and experts doubt that the United States will be able to soon field an Arab force large and strong to defeat thousands of Islamic State militants who have had months to prepare a final stand.

They pointed out that some 25,000 Iraqi troops, militiamen and Kurdish peshmerga fighters are involved in the offensive to wrest Mosul from an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 militants.

“Raqqa is every bit as infested as Mosul, perhaps even more so,” said Thomas Lynch, a National Defense University fellow and retired Army officer. “But there is an enormous investment by this administration in terms of going after Raqqa before it leaves office.”

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