By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On March 22nd US forces helped transport elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces across lake Assad behind ISIS lines. Coming ashore around 30 kilometers from Raqqa, the allied forces marched on Tabqah dam. “It takes a special breed of warrior to pull off an airborne operation or air assault behind enemy lines,” said coalition Col. Joe Scrocca. “There is nothing easy about this – it takes audacity and courage. And the SDF has that in spades.”
The French defense minister said that Raqqa is “encircled” and the battle for the city will begin in days. The coalition has struck six bridges and roads leading into the city which has been the capital of ISIS in Syria.
It is worth pausing now to consider that at the same time the Iraqi army and its coalition partners, which in theory number up to 68 countries that recently met in Washington, are busy trying to liberate the rest of Mosul.
The Raqqa operation and Mosul are two very different battles, even though in some ways they are portrayed as similar. A map at the same scale shows the relative sizes of the cities. Each city functioned as an ISIS command and headquarters, but the struggle to reduce ISIS presence will be different.
Depending on how you measure their urban area, Mosul is between 64-100 sq km whereas Raqqa is between 8 and 25 sq km. In short, Mosul is many times larger than Raqqa. In terms of population Raqqa’s urban population before the war was estimated at around 300,000 with an addition 200,000 in communities around it. Mosul’s population approached 2 million before the war. When the Mosul offensive began the UN and other groups estimated that around 800,000 people remained in Mosul. As late as February, when the offensive to take West Mosul was taking place, the numbers were still 400,000 under ISIS control.
In the Mosul offensive there were around 50,000 Iraqi Security Forces involved, including PMU (Hashd al-Sha’abi) Shia militias to the West and Kurdish Peshmerga forces that helped in the initial phases. They confronted around 5,000 ISIS fighters. They were bolstered by hundreds of coalition forces at the front and thousands in support positions. In the Raqqa offensive reports have mentioned “thousands” of SDF fighters bolstered by hundreds of coalition special forces, including Rangers and Marines (artillery). The weapons at the disposal of the SDF are also very different from what the Iraqi army can bring to bare. The Iraqi army has tanks, artillery, helicopters and it has a seemingly endless amount of Humvees and ammunition. The SDF by contrast has limited ammunition and small arms and it uses uparmoured vehicles. It has been bolstered by coalition support, but its weapons must be conserved. ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa have similar weapons at their disposal, including well prepared IEDs, drones, mortars and sniper positions.
It has taken almost 6 months to take Mosul. As Raqqa begins it is worth considering the differences in how the battle may play out.
A look at the current situation of ISIS control in Iraq and Syria from the ISIS live map
Then let’s look at what is left to liberate in Mosul.
And then a map of the same scale of Raqqa
The situation is that the SDF will advance on Raqqa from the west at Tabqah dam and at the same time continue its advance from the north, using similar tactics as the Iraq army used in Mosul. This includes close air support from the coalition as well as artillery and special forces on the ground. The main offensive forces involved in the battle of Raqqa, will have much less at their disposal in terms of armored vehicles and state of the art equipment, but they make up for that in high morale and the fact they are dealing with a smaller urban environment.
If the battle of Raqqa starts within the next weeks it should last less than the months it took to liberate Mosul which was a much larger and more complex battlefield and the coalition has learned greatly from what was effective in the battle for eastern Mosul. They have also learned what slowed down the offensive and the troubles that were faced. The SDF fighters involved have been doing the heavy-lifting against ISIS for a year or more (their YPG comrades have been fighting since 2014), so they know the enemy. Similarly the Iraqi ICTF “Golden Division” had been involved in ferreting out ISIS in massive battles in places such as Faluja, Ramadi, Tikrit and elsewhere. The SDF will bring that knowledge with them.
There may be political factors at play in the battle for Raqqa, such as the Turkish issue and the Syrian regime. However the overall tactical setup is clear. It is also clear in Mosul. Mosul is surrounded and will fall and what is left of the core of ISIS fighters, some (maybe many) of them foreign hard core extremists looking for death, will be destroyed.