US-backed SDF commander: ISIS to get evicted from Raqqa in two months?

Less of a timeline than a prediction, this commander’s ETA on victory over the capital of ISIS may seem overly optimistic. After all, the battle for ISIS’ other prominent urban center, Mosul, took nearly nine months, and killed more than 40,000 civilians and perhaps nearly as many combatants (depending on sources), most of those ISIS fighters. The top-ranking Kurdish commander in Syria believes that the coalition bearing down on Raqqa could take the city in just two more months of fighting. Maybe:


The battle to oust Islamic State from its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa should end within two months, a top-ranking Kurdish commander told Reuters, but said she expects the fighting to intensify.

Nowruz Ahmed sits on the military council of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and as one of a small number of members of its Raqqa general command is one of the most senior commanders in the offensive.

Islamic State has lost swathes of territory since 2015 in both Syria and Iraq, including the Iraqi city of Mosul. In Syria, under separate attacks from a U.S.-led coalition and from the Russian-backed Syrian army, it is falling back on its strongholds along the Euphrates valley east of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the caliphate it declared in 2014.

“We cannot determine the time period in which the battle of Raqqa will end precisely because war has its conditions. But we do not expect it to last long, and according to our plans the battle will not take longer than two months from now,” Ahmed said.

The battle began two months ago, so this prediction would have ISIS out of its last major stronghold in half the time it took the Iraqi army and its allies to eject them from Mosul. That does make some sense, especially with the difference in size between the two cities. Before ISIS sacked Mosul, over 660,000 people within the city proper, and as many as 1.5 million people lived in its metropolitan area. Raqqa’s population was estimated at 220,000 in a 2004 census, and only about half again larger when counting its administrative district.


There are other reasons for optimism, too. The morale of ISIS’ rank and file appears to have broken in Iraq. The army took the long-established garrison of Tal Afar in an eight-day offensive:

Seizing the city of Tal Afar district by district, Iraqi fighters would take down the Islamic State group’s black flags and hang them upside-down as they took “victory selfies”.

But of all the areas they reclaimed, it was the historic heart of Tal Afar and its Ottoman-era citadel that was the high point. …

Turning to an AFP correspondent, Abu Abbas ridicules IS for its boasting that “the Islamic State will stay on and persist”.

“Where are they? I don’t see any one of them here,” said Abbas, who hails from the Shiite shrine city of Karbala in southern Iraq.

Unlike in Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS fighters appear to have bugged out of Tal Afar. They have regrouped in another town, al-Ayadiya, where the Iraqi army has slowly made its way:

Iraqi forces said they faced tough resistance on Monday from Islamic State fighters driven out of the city of Tal Afar to a small town where they had “nothing to lose” by fighting to the end.

An advance by the Iraqi army and Shi’ite paramilitary groups into al-’Ayadiya was being slowed by snipers, booby-traps and roadside bombs, military officials told Reuters. …

“Our intelligence shows that the most diehard Daesh fighters fled Tal Afar to al-’Ayadiya,” Kareem said.

That’s as far as they’ll get, however, which means that the fight will go to the death in al-Ayadiya. The coalition has cut off the lines of communication back to Syria. ISIS’ position in western Iraq has almost entirely been lost, at least in any sort of organized sense.


So ISIS fighters have realized that they don’t have much hope for a long life, or for the survival of their collapsing caliphate. But at least in Tal Afar, ISIS had driven off almost all of the residents first, which gave the Iraqi army much more flexibility than the SDF will have in and around Raqqa when reducing the dug-in ISIS fighters. Most of the civilians in Raqqa had no way to escape before, and can now only hunker down and hope that neither side kills them, and especially that ISIS doesn’t use them as human shields. That will slow down the progress, but on scale, four months may be a pretty good estimate.

What next? That’s the question, especially when it comes to the foreign fighters who avoid getting trapped in death zones. Will they try to come home and wage the war there?

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