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James Denselow

The race for Raqqa

Kobani 2015: The price of wresting cities out of IS control is well-established [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 June, 2016

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Comment: With an array of armed groups fighting to topple IS in Raqqa, the risk of an ensuing security vacuum bodes ominously, writes James Denselow
The campaign against the self-proclaimed "Islamic State group" (IS) continues to escalate, with the group facing a serious fight for Fallujah, reports of internal strife, possible infiltration by spies and now its capital Raqqa under threat. 

Regime forces are making progress towards the heart of the "caliphate" with Assad trumpeting his desire to "liberate every inch" of the country in early June. Assad's speech followed Syrian army troops entering Raqqa province for the first time in two years. The regime made much of its recapture of Palmyra from IS and its forces are now about 45 miles from "Caliph" Baghdadi's HQ itself.
 
Yet also en route to the beleaguered and heavily bombed city are US-backed forces. Colonel Steve Warren, the US spokesman for the anti-Islamic State campaign, said last month that a group of 200 Arab fighters has finished its training and "is continuing to gain strength, it's continuing to grow, and we'll continue to build up in posture for an eventual move against Raqqa". 
 
The city, once home to some 220,000 Syrians, faces an impending storm as this array of forces approaches. IS took complete control of the town they proclaimed their "capital" in January of 2014, with their forces destroying the city's Christian churches and Shia mosques as well as executing suspected regime sympathisers. 
The city, once home to some 220,000 Syrians, faces an impending storm as this array of forces approaches
Over the last two years the city has suffered frequently from strikes by the US-led coalition, as well as the Syrian and Russian air forces. Meanwhile residents also had to endure life under IS itself, well-chronicled by the campaign group "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently".

As the twin forces converge on the city, reports suggest that militants have dug trenches and planted mines in anticipation of an eventual attack. French daily, 
Le Monde reported recently that Raqqa's residents are essentially now being held hostage with IS forces spread out amongst the civilian population to protect themselves from being targeted. In Falluja the Norwegian Refugee Council reported civilians were shot as they attempted to flee across the Euphrates River. 
 
The price to pay for wresting cities out of IS control is now well established. Just look at the state of Kobani and Ramadi and what this might mean for the evolving contest over Falluja.
However, serious questions remain over what would happen if the US-backed "moderate" opposition take the city by force
The battle for Ramadi was particularly brutal and some estimate that 80 percent of the city was destroyed in order to seize it. Street by street fighting, the use of airpower and artillery to force militants from booby-trapped houses complete with underground tunnels, meant that "victory" came at a particularly heavy price. Residents of Mosul and Raqqa now look nervously on. 
 
With the focus in recent months correctly on the fate of Aleppo, discussions on Raqqa have seldom been heard. Considering the symbolic, tactical importance of the IS stronghold, there needs to be more explicit planning and focus on what would happen were it to fall. William Wallis wrote in the Financial Times that Raqqa "could become the site for a conflagration of multiple ground forces". 
 
The two-pronged advance to capture key IS urban strongholds appears to represent a convergence of US and Russian strategies. However, serious questions remain over what would happen if the US-backed "moderate" opposition take the city by force.
But if all sides are fighting for a claim to the same objective without the kind of coordination that is needed to avoid clashes, then who can predict what exactly will happen, beyond further chaos?
Would they then be besieged and barrel bombed by regime troops as part of Assad's push to "liberate" the whole country, or will the opposition groups attack the regime if they secure Raqqa first? 
 
For the Obama administration, the fall of the IS capital would be a powerful bookend to his narrative of success against the group before his presidency draws to a close. For Assad, taking down the black flag from the city would further his credentials as the answer to the problem that is IS.

But if all sides are fighting for a claim to the same objective without the kind of coordination that is needed to avoid clashes, then who can predict what exactly will happen, beyond further chaos? This of course spells a dire future for the civilians of the city and the chances of much being left standing once the fighting is over, look slim. What does seem likely is that Raqqa may go from being silently slaughtered to enduring a far higher profile, as IS looks to defend its capital.


James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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