Raqqa surrounded -- but what next?

The US-led coalition now estimates that 2500 ISIS fighters remain in Raqqa — and that they won’t go anywhere else. CBS News quotes Brett McGurk, the envoy for the anti-ISIS fight, as saying that the US intends to make sure every last one of them dies in the so-called capital of the so-called Islamic State:

With Iraq declaring an end to the caliphate and promising to have secured Mosul in the next few days, the ISIS marauders are down to their last remaining urban stronghold. According to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by Syrian Kurds, Raqqa has been cut off from the rest of the country, and ISIS is under siege:

U.S.-backed fighters have seized the last road into Raqqa and are moving eastward along the river south of the city, almost completing the siege on the militants’ de-facto capital, U.S. officials and a Syria war monitor said Thursday.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition told The Associated Press that the Syrian Democratic Forces are now in control of all high-speed routes into Raqqa from the south. The Kurdish-led fighters had been advancing from the city’s east after they seized a major stronghold in May, and from the west and north.

“South of the Euphrates river the SDF now control all high-speed routes into Raqqa,” Col. Joe Scrocca, spokesman for the U.S-led coalition, said in emails to the AP. Moving toward the Euphrates from the east “would completely encircle the city and has been the SDF plan from the start.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a unit of the SDF has seized villages across the river, moving through the Kasret al-Faraj area. The Observatory described it as a “strategic” advance that completes the siege around Raqqa.

In one measure of just how much ground has been lost by ISIS fighters, CBS News was able to send a crew into the outskirts of the city for a report. They didn’t stick around long, as snipers opened fire on their position, but Holly Williams and her team appear to be the first American broadcast news crew to enter Raqqa in years:

Just three weeks ago, walking the streets of Raqqa would have been suicidal for an American TV crew.

Now, ISIS is losing its grip — besieged by U.S. coalition airstrikes and America’s allies on the ground, a rag-tag army known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

CBS News correspondent Holly Williams and her team are the first U.S. television crew to report from Raqqa City, the terror group’s de-facto capital which, during more than three years under ISIS control, became a killing field.

This seems to be more stunt than substance, as nothing specific got reported on this foray except for the foray itself. It does show just how badly ISIS has fared under the long-overdue assault on the center of its power, and also the destruction that has taken place under their brutal terrorist leadership. They’re still entrenched there, even if in surprising small numbers, and annihilating them in the manner McGurk suggests will take some time.

But what happens after that? How will the US-backed coalition secure the city after ISIS finally breathes its last? Foreign Policy’s Paul McCleary reports on the US plan to secure Raqqa, using 3500 locals and a week of training:

As the Islamic State crumbles, American special operations forces and their Arab and Kurdish allies have been working quietly to establish a force of about 3,500 militiamen to help secure Raqqa, Syria, according to U.S. military and State Department officials.

In April, a 100-member Raqqa Civilian Council was formed in the city of Ain Issa just north of Raqqa, and U.S. troops have been training, equipping, and paying a growing security force that will be given responsibility for keeping the peace once the Islamic State is defeated. The current plan, outlined for Foreign Policy by several government officials, calls for the security forces to go through a weeklong training program that includes human rights instruction, crowd control techniques, and guidelines in setting up checkpoints.

The Americans insist that the Raqqa Internal Security Force, as it is known, will be manned by vetted local fighters that reflect the ethnic makeup of the the city and will be overseen by the civilian city council. But questions remain over long-term plans for the city of over 200,000 civilians, who are facing weeks of grinding street-by-street fighting, airstrikes, and suicide bombings before the Islamic State is driven out, leaving parts of Raqqa in ruins.

The US tried the same approach in Afghanistan, but not without issues arising:

The U.S. military’s experience building local security forces has met with mixed success. In Afghanistan, a local police program showed early promise by providing a solution for security in remote areas that overstretched government troops couldn’t reach. While the program has grown to include about 30,000 Afghans operating in small groups throughout the country and has been effective in some places, it has been hounded by charges of theft, rape, harassment, and corruption.

Normally, one would need to put boots on the ground to secure a city, and it’s curious as to why the SDF itself isn’t getting tasked with securing the city. The answer is that the Kurdish leadership is already being accused of looking to build a Kurdistan out of eastern Syria, which is why the Turks objected so strenuously to US support for the SDF, which includes the YPG — which the Turks consider terrorists. This plan avoids putting Kurds in charge of Raqqa, but it also leaves open the possibility that the security forces could end up creating more problems than they solve, or worse yet become infiltrated by jihadis that could start the whole mess all over again.

ISIS will soon be gone, but the headaches will continue for years.