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Will Raqqa be liberated or occupied after expelling IS?

The battle for Raqqa is expected to be a long and gruelling one [AFP]

Date of publication: 3 March, 2017

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Tensions rise as the US, Kurdish forces, Turkey and the Syrian regime eye the imminent battle to capture the Islamic State group's Syrian stronghold.

As the battle to liberate the Islamic State's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa looms, rival groups involved in the build up to the last advance are racing to take control of the northern city.

US-backed Kurdish forces, Syria's government and Turkish troops all have their eyes set on Raqqa, though have yet to demonstrate the ability to seize it on their own.

"Raqqa is more of an abstract goal: everyone wants it in principle, but no one is willing to commit the resources and bear the risks necessary," said Faysal Itani, an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

The US strategy

US President Donald Trump has vowed to "obliterate" the IS group and told Congress on Tuesday that this would be achieved in partnership with "our friends and allies in the Muslim world".

With the US-backed battle for Mosul now raging into its fourth month, however, the president's some are bracing for a similarly long and gruelling campaign in Raqqa.

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US-backed forces fighting in Mosul have struggled despite having intensive training and US military equipment [AFP]

Lietenant Gen. Stephen Townsend, the US' top commander in the anti-IS campaign, has said he believes that the fight for the IS group's Iraqi 'capital' will take six months.

So far, US-backed Iraqi forces have only managed to capture half of the city in what has involved heavy street-to-street urban combat. 

It is expected that similar, if not stiffer resistance will be encountered in Raqqa, where IS have entrenched themselves deeply.

This slow rate of progress has been achieved with an intensively-trained Iraqi army alongside US commandos and firepower on the ground. In Syria, Washington will have to rely heavily on relatively disorganised and under-trained Kurdish fighters.

Many Syrians fear the implications of a predominantly Kurdish force taking a city mainly populated by Arabs

An 'Occupying force'

The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces are Trump's best bet in Syria, where they have been advancing on the ground with the backing of US airstrikes.


The group has been closing in on Raqqa alongside some 500 US military advisors since November. 

Many Syrians, however, fear the implications of a predominantly Kurdish force taking a city mainly populated by Arabs.

The SDF are also in a non-aggression pact with Bashar al-Assad's forces, who are preoccuppied with battles elsewhere.

The Manbij Military Council, part of the SDF alliance, announced on Thursday it will hand over villages west of the town to the Syrian army after a deal brokered by Russia.

The move is meant to head off advances by Turkey-backed rebels on Manbij and beyond.

The villages have been a focus of fighting in recent days between the Turkish-backed forces and the SDF.

"Let us be frank that any force that will liberate Raqqa, other than the Free Syrian Army, is going to be a new occupation force with different flags and banners," said Mohammed Khodor of Sound and Picture Organization, which tracks IS atrocities in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey was even more forthcoming in its rejection of an SDF takeover, with Prime Minister Benali Yildirim warning that it would harm relations between Ankara and Washington.

"We have said that a terror organization cannot be used against another terror organisation," He told Anadolu news agency.

The Kurds have likewise described Turkey, which is backing the Free Syrian Army, as occupiers.

Raqqa, which the IS group has held since January 2014, is significantly latger than both Manbij and al-Bab.

Fierce battle ahead

Regardless of who enters Raqqa first, however, it is clear that the battle will be a long and fierce one.

Turkish forces and their allies were held off from the town of al-Bab for over three months by the IS group, in a battle that claimed the lives of dozens of Turkish soldiers and civilians.

The SDF, meanwhile, took almost 10 weeks to capture the northern Syrian town of Manbij from IS last year. 

Raqqa, which the IS group has held since January 2014, is significantly latger than both Manbij and al-Bab.

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