A few days separate Raqqa, ISIS’ main stronghold in Syria, from a battle that could turn into a long war of attrition.
It is likely that the battle will start next April, according to Siban Hamo, the head of operations of the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units”, in a statement by him to the Reuters news agency on Saturday, March 18.
The Units expected they would take over Raqqa in a matter of weeks but the Pentagon refused to take a final decision to start the battle and expects that the battle will be longer than predicted by Hamo.
ISIS has changed its former position and reinforced its fortifications in order to prepare for street warfare in the city, changes and measures that Raqqa’s citizens described as “sudden”.
“Apache” Planes Arrive … And Turkey Is “Absent”
Siban Hamo, who rarely appears in the media, expects that US Apache helicopters will arrive to provide air cover during the battle. He thinks it unlikely that Turkey would take part in the battle, saying, “The Turks will try to sabotage the operation but the situation won’t allow them to do much”.
Hamo said in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper that the units would participate with Arab fighters within the “Syrian Democratic Forces”. He added, “25% of the total force that will attack Raqqa consists of the Units’ fighters who are highly experienced on the battlefield”.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are encircling Raqqa on three sides after cutting off the road to Deir Al-Zor. Hamo confirmed the arrival of 2000 fighters just 22 kilometers to the west of Raqqa, with another 2500 fighters 30 kilometers from the city and 3000 fighters 17 kilometers to the east.
Change in ISIS’ Policy
According to Mohammed Alloush, a former resident of Deir al-Zor, the battles are only “a stone’s throw” from Raqqa. He considers that “despite all the talk of a mobilization against ISIS, ISIS is still strong and capable of responding to developments”.
Alloush, who has been settled in Raqqa for more than three years, said that ISIS is “behaving with a wisdom that has surprised everyone in the way that it is managing the battles, while the attacking forces are focusing on achieving a quick victory at any cost while they are disregarding the outcome”.
ISIS is changing its policy in areas that are under threat, including those in Raqqa. According to the activist Bakr Saud, it has managed to adapt well in the areas it lost, including the northern countryside of Aleppo and Raqqa.
ISIS has also maintained its human resources and managed them professionally, according to Saud, who says that ISIS is still strong and it is still able to reach areas that are far from its centers. As evidence, the activist mentions ISIS’s attacks on “Kurdish forces” in the countryside of Hasaka and recent rumors that it has brought new members to the town of Markada.
Exploitation of Battles
Air strikes target ISIS’ areas in Raqqa almost every day, and in the past months, bridges that connect its areas of control have been destroyed in order to weaken it, which left dozens of civilians dead.
ISIS benefits from all this and from the persecution of residents based on charges of supporting ISIS in areas that are outside its control, according to Rim Al-Ali, an Arabic teacher who previously lived in Raqqa before moving to its countryside.
Al-Ali pointed out that ISIS “is well aware of the current battles and is working on distributing aid and trying to keep prices stable through actions that make its areas a safer refuge than other areas. One of the most notable actions that ISIS took is forcing some of its members to apologize for individual mistakes made against civilians”.
The teacher added, “On the sidelines of the war taking place in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, there is a hidden and more serious war, which will form a new phase in the future”. Some of those Enab Baladi spoke to agree with this and consider that “rejection of external forces is one of the cards used by ISIS to its benefit”.
The measures that ISIS took surprised residents but these measures were taken by ISIS as an attempt to gain their confidence. This can be seen in requests by ISIS for residents to visit its centers in Raqqa in order to receive their identity and official papers that were held in the offices of “Hisbah”, the “Islamic police” and its other institutions.
According to Mohammed Huwaidi, who migrated from Deir az-Zor, ISIS issued amnesties for some crimes and offences punishable by imprisonment and fines such as hair shaving, smoking and having a shower. It also released dozens of prisoners, which made a lot of residents stay, despite the fact that ISIS facilitated their exit and granted them permits.
Huwaidi does not put this down simply to the upcoming battles and considers that what ISIS is doing is a sign of its “good intentions” and a way to guarantee its continued existence. He attributed this to the fact that ISIS’ presence is not linked to its organizational presence but to the ideas that it promotes among people.
Raqqa is receiving migrants from the rural areas of Aleppo and Palmyra with the decline of ISIS’ control. Huwaidi thinks that their reception gives a positive image of ISIS since it shows the destruction caused by the coalition air force and Russian air power, along with pictures of the massacres against civilians.
ISIS is completing its fortification of the city, preparing field hospitals and cutting roads. However, it is allowing shop owners, including internet cafés, to work daily and it is working on intensifying the movement of its members in the streets of Raqqa, a move that residents consider is aimed at negating rumors about the escape of its members from the city.
Meanwhile some American media reported that ISIS continues to force civilians to join its ranks.
The battle of Raqqa will not be easy given the thousands of members who are fighting with ISIS, which is constantly promoting the idea that the goal of the upcoming battles in the city is to try to empty the city of its indigenous Sunni Arab population.
But exploiting people’s emotions and religious sentiments has not always worked. Activists told Enab Baladi that ISIS supporters in the village of Al-Karameh in the countryside of Raqqa called on its fighters to stay away from civilian areas, which caused confrontations in which the son of Abu Ali al-Sharai, one of the most prominent figures in ISIS, was killed.
How will the battle be resolved?
Given the lack of information about the methods to be used against ISIS in Raqqa, Enab Baladi’s local sources confirmed that members of US elite forces will participate in the battle. This is used by ISIS in its favor, since it emphasizes the violation of the customs and traditions of the regions, a policy it pursued in other areas previously under its control.
A Defense Department spokesman, Jeff Davis, stated that the battle for Raqqa could be long, according to an interview with the Reuters news agency. He considers that “ISIS had a lot of time to build its defenses and combat sites and to plant improvised explosive devices in houses and cars”.
The United States supports the Kurdish forces’ operations in northeastern Syria and their battles against ISIS. Turkey, which has troops in northern Aleppo, opposes operations by the Syrian Democratic Forces and considers it a “terrorist” entity.
“The next phase will be more dangerous since eliminating ISIS from the city does not mean its end”, said Huwaidi, who considers that the absence of administrative authority if ISIS is pushed out of Raqqa, would reduce its movement but it would still exist in a hidden way among civilians, and perhaps popular support will allow it to infiltrate the people of Raqqa once again”.
The new relations of residents and the population with ISIS will be shaped by developments on the ground in Raqqa, amidst uncertainty as to the features of the next authority that will govern the city. Some residents say that “it would be no less violent and will not be better for civilians, who are tired of constant conflict”.