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Difficult battle for ISIS capital Raqqa begins

U.S.-backed Syrian groups have begun the battle to retake the city of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. The U.S. military says the battle will be "long and difficult," and perhaps made more complicated by the crisis between Qatar and other Arab nations. Jeffrey Brown talks to Joby Warrick of The Washington Post and former Defense Department official Andrew Exum.

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    For three years, the Islamic State group has held the Syrian city of Raqqa, which it made the capital of its so-called caliphate.

    Now U.S.-backed Syrian groups with the help of American and coalition troops and airpower have begun the battle to retake the city.

    Jeffrey Brown reports.


    They are called the Syrian Democratic Forces, and they have fought their way to the outskirts of Raqqa. Now the fighters of the SDF say they're ready for the main assault.

  • TALAL SILO, Syrian Democratic Forces Spokesman (through interpreter):

    Morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete and in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition to fight terrorism.


    Backed by U.S. coalition airstrikes, the Kurdish militias of the SDF and their Arab allies reached the city's northern and eastern gates last week.

    But the U.S. military says the battle for the city itself will be "long and difficult." In neighboring Iraq, by comparison, the fight to retake Mosul from is has raged since October. And the fight for Raqqa may be complicated further by the crisis between the Persian Gulf state of Qatar and other Arab nations.

    On Twitter today, President Trump sided with Saudi Arabia and others today in the confrontation. The U.S. has about 10,000 troops in Qatar, and a major air base used to launch strikes against ISIS. The Pentagon says its posture in there won't change.

    State Department spokesman Heather Nauert:

  • HEATHER NAUERT, State Department Spokeswoman:

    We continue to cooperate with Qatar and other countries in the region in the fight against terrorism.


    Meanwhile, Turkey is keeping a nervous eye on the fighting at Raqqa, less than 60 miles from its border. The United States is now supplying heavy weapons to the Syrian Kurds of the SDF. They are allied with Turkish Kurdish militants, whom Ankara and the U.S. consider terrorists.

  • BINALI YILDIRIM, Turkish Prime Minister (through interpreter):

    Despite our many warnings, our ally, our friend the United States has unfortunately entered into a cooperation with a terrorist organization. We will immediately retaliate if there's a threat to our nation, our country and to the safety and lives of our citizens.


    The U.S.-led coalition also announced today that it had bombed what it said were pro-Syrian regime forces in Southern Syria. The pro-government elements had reportedly entered a restricted zone near what is known to be a U.S. and British special forces base.

    And we look at the fight that lies ahead in Raqqa with Joby Warrick, national security reporter for The Washington Post, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Islamic State entitled "Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS." And Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy from 2015-2016, he's now a contributing editor at "The Atlantic."

    Welcome to both of you.

    Andrew Exum, let me start with you.

    How significant is the Raqqa offensive? What are the stakes here?

  • ANDREW EXUM, Former Defense Department Official:

    Well, I think it's significant, although we shouldn't overstate the degree to which this will really herald the end of the Islamic State.

    If you rewind the clock two years ago to when the Islamic State was still spreading across Syria and Iraq and threatening our allies in Turkey and Jordan, we came up with a plan to try to squeeze the Islamic State from multiple different directions.

    And part of what we have been trying to do is apply simultaneous pressure. The idea was to eventually get to kind of the dual capitals of the Islamic State in Raqqa and Mosul. Obviously, the fight for Mosul began last year. We weren't able to get to Raqqa by the time that President Obama left office, in part because we were still waiting on some pretty big policy decisions, including arming the Syrian Kurds, who have borne the brunt of the fight in Syria.

    But we now appear to be knocking on the doors of Raqqa. The fight should be — should last several months. It's going to be extremely difficult. But once this is over, it really — it heralds perhaps the end of the Islamic State as an actual quasi-state, but we should expect it to exist for quite some time as a terrorist organization, as insurgents.


    So, Joby, fill in a little bit more about the practical difficulties, especially vis-a-vis what's happening in Mosul, where it's dragging on.

  • JOBY WARRICK, The Washington Post:


    Jeff, remember, this is the capital, this is the true capital of the Islamic State. They're going to fight to the last man. This is really the sort of endgame for them in terms of keeping this caliphate alive. And we have seen what they have done to Mosul, their other capital.

    They held on for eight months, and the place still hasn't fallen. So, we can expect all kinds of complications in the battlefield itself, everything from the tunnels and the sniping and sophisticated defensive techniques. They're not going to let this go easily.


    And the U.S. role here is airborne.


    Mostly airborne.

    And it's a critical role. We do have allies that we're relying on to do the fighting on the ground, although we do have advisers and people on the forward positions doing artillery work and that sort of thing. But it really is a fight for our allies and not for us on the ground.


    Andrew, if you allow yourself to think ahead, assuming a defeat of ISIS, what would be next? Where are they being pushed to?


    Well, first off, I think the defeat of ISIS looks different in Iraq than it does in Syria.

    In Iraq, we have worked by, with and through an Iraqi state. That state is flawed. It's weak. It's grown in some ways more federalized as the war has gone on and as the Kurds have really been able to flex their muscles in the north. But, nonetheless, it is a state.

    In Syria, by contrast, the conflict, which may not involve the Islamic State past next year, the conflict should be expected to last for quite some time. The Turks are obviously going to be very concerned about who controls Northern Syria, who controls Raqqa. Is it going to be the Kurds with their Arab allies?

    That might be unpalatable, to say the least, to President Erdogan in Ankara. So, I think we should expect Syria to remain, unfortunately, quite a bit of a mess for the foreseeable future.


    Well, this, Joby Warrick, gets very confusing, I think, for people watching, for all of us watching at different times, all the different players. Right?

    You think about the race to defeat ISIS and the potential aftermath and the chaos that could be there as well.


    Right. Yes.

    And you think about just the oddity of this, that we are arming a nonstate actor, essentially a Kurdish militia, against — who is arrayed one of our NATO allies, Turkey. And these two see each other as mortal enemies, and yet we're all on the same side in a sense of trying to reclaim the city from the Islamic State.

    What happens afterward, we just don't know. Does Turkey allow a Kurdish entity to control this part of Syria? I don't think so. They're going to be very insistent on driving out these Kurds. Does that mean another war breaks out after ISIS is gone?

    It's very complicated and very dangerous.


    What about, Andrew, the role of the Syrian government itself at this point?


    Well, this is where it gets complicated, especially down in the south, where you're starting to see some Syrian government forces push up against some rebels that we have been supporting to try to defeat the Islamic State.

    After Raqqa, over the which the Syrian government really hasn't tried to make a claim, the next big ISIS stronghold is Deir el-Zour, where there is a small toehold of the regime, where the regime does want to project forces.

    And so U.S. forces and U.S.-backed forces are going to start bumping up the Syrian regime's coalition, which, of course, includes Russia and Hezbollah, as well as Iran. So, the geography is just going to get more complicated after the Islamic State's capitals fall in both Mosul and Raqqa.


    So, Joby, we referred in our setup to this dust-up involving Qatar. Does that have any particular impact on the fight against ISIS?


    What's interesting to me is to see the role the Trump administration has taken in that fight, with the president himself getting involved in this new sort of Twitter blast over the last 24 hours, basically taking the Saudis' side against the Qataris, who are our ally as well, and also the host to one of our major military facilities.


    Well, Andrew, explain the role that Qatar plays and why it might have some implications.


    The U.S. military is running the entire air campaign for the fight against the Islamic State out of Qatar. We have several thousand troops there.

    And I think that's one of the reasons why, after the president's tweets, which really echoed not only the Saudi, but the Emirati frustrations with Qatar, that's why you have seen the State Department try to clean that up a little bit.

    But I'm sure that Secretary of Defense Mattis and the secretary of state were frustrated, to say the least, to see the president get so far out there with his tweets this morning.


    All right, Joby Warrick, Andrew Exum, thank you both very much.


    Sure thing.

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