Best Defense

A coherent approach to Raqqa

Iraq’s security forces are in operational pause.



By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

Iraq’s security forces are in operational pause. That is military shorthand for, “What we are doing is not working and we need another plan.” Since the debacles against the Islamic State in 2014, American support has been incremental in both Syria and Iraq. The United States is sending another 1,000 troops to advise and assist; that will not be enough to turn the anti-Islamic State coalition in Syria into an effective urban fighting force.

The war has dragged on and the battle of Mosul in Iraq has become a slugging match of attrition. Raqqa in Syria promises more of the same. So far, American support has served to help soften up Islamic State forces in Mosul where the Islamic State has emulated Japanese tactics in the World War II battle of Okinawa. As in Okinawa. Their concept is apocalyptic and based on taking as many of the enemy with them as they can before they go. As was the case on Okinawa, the longer the battle lasts, the better, from an Islamic State viewpoint. Raqqa will be worse, because the forces attacking it will have no centralized command and control and even less expertise in urban fighting than the Iraqis. It is shaping up the be the proverbial knife fight in a phone booth.

Despite American help, Iraqi forces are seeing the same problems that faced American forces at Okinawa in 1945. The enemy uses suicide squads to take out tanks and other support vehicles. He pops up from tunnels and other hiding places behind friendly troops that they believe have been secured. He uses snipers to pick off officers, radio operators, and medical personnel. Islamic State fighters try to be everywhere and nowhere. They skillfully use civilians as shields making the destruction of entire buildings to take out a single machine gun nest infeasible. The recent bombing in Mosul that killed scores of civilians is a result of a lack of proper training and technology for an integrated urban battle.

A brigade-sized (5,000 troops) American assault force could finish Raqqa in a month. We have assault forces that are trained in urban combat, particularly in the use of aviation and other supporting arms, that are capable of clearing rooms in buildings without   turning whole structures into a pile of rubble. Decisive action always trumps attrition warfare, and we have the capability to finish the Islamic State in Raqqa in a most expeditious manner. The battle would be short, brutal, and bloody; but most of the bloodshed would be on the Islamic State side. The Syrian rebel and Kurdish forces that face the Islamic State around Raqqa are capable of blockading the city, and seizing some of the outskirts, but they are a long way from having the training, equipment, and communications to dislodge the Islamic State in a major urban fight.

However, that leaves the question of who will run the place when the fight is finished. Us doing it is a bad answer. We do not understand the politics of the Raqqa region and a long-term American presence will only exacerbate local tensions post-Islamic State. We need to find a Sunni partner willing to create a mid-term protectorate in the Raqqa region. Turkey would be a poor choice because of its baggage with the Kurds. The United Arab Emirates and Jordan are better candidates. The Jordanians have a vested national interest in a Raqqa success as a Raqqa free zone would provide a place for many displaced Syrians to go out of the country for safety. So far, Jordan has borne the brunt of Syrian refugees who remain in the region. Creating a safe place for these displaced persons within Syria is in the Jordanian national interest.

Under some form of Sunni control, the Raqqa region could serve two valuable functions. First, it would be a haven for refugees with no other place to go. Second, it would provide for a sanctuary for those who oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rebel forces. President Donald Trump has shown a willingness to provide “no-fly zone” protection for such sanctuaries.

Such a protectorate region could provide the nucleus for a free Syrian state, or it could be the entity that would allow for a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war. Once the Islamic State is gone, the road to a Syrian settlement becomes much more clear. We Americans have reached a point where we are relatively independent of Middle East oil. We no longer have true vital interests in the region. Finishing off the Islamic State as a regional actor, and reducing it back to the status of yet another homeless terrorist group would allow us to craft a new role as an honest broker in the ongoing Sunni-Shiite civil war in the region.

We have not had a clean end-state in a conflict since the end of the Cold War. Cleaning out the Islamic State and handing the governance of Raqqa over to a competent regional actor would be a clean ending to the nightmare that we inadvertently created when we prematurely abandoned the region to its own devices in 2011. Raqqa offers us a regional “mulligan” and a chance to craft a new chapter in the Middle East as the adult in the room.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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