WASHINGTON – The fight to retake Raqqa, the Syrian city that serves as the capital of the Islamic State, must begin soon â€” within weeks â€” to disrupt planning believed to be underway there to stage terrorist attacks on the West, senior Defense Department and military officials said on Wednesday.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top American military commander in Iraq, declined to name a specific threat against Western targets emanating from Raqqa, but described a â€œsense of urgency.â€ He said it was imperative that operations to isolate the city begin soon to prevent attacks on the West that could be launched or planned from the militantsâ€™ capital.
In announcing that the fight to retake Raqqa is imminent, American officials are sweeping aside objections from Turkey and moving forward with plans to rely on a ground fighting force that includes Kurdish militia fighters in Syria. The Turkish government, which has become a complicated ally in the fight against the Islamic State, fears that aspirations for autonomy may spread among its own Kurdish population.
General Townsend stressed that Kurdish militia fighters would be a part of the ground force used to isolate Raqqa.
â€œWeâ€™re going to go with who can go, whoâ€™s willing to go soon,â€ General Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon during a video news briefing from Baghdad. â€œAnd then, once we get the initial isolation in position, weâ€™ll look at how we prosecute the operation further.â€
The politics of the matter have bedeviled American military planners trying to thread a needle through decades-old enmity between the Turks and the Kurds. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurdish fighters, known collectively as the Y.P.G., as an extension of the Kurdistan Workersâ€™ Party, the Kurdish rebel group that has sought autonomy from Turkey since the 1980s. Ankara has demanded that the Y.P.G. not take part in the fight to retake Raqqa.
But American military officials say the Y.P.G. personnel are the best fighters they have. â€œThe facts are these,â€ General Townsend said. â€œThe only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the Y.P.G. are a significant portion.â€
While the Kurdish militia will make up the bulk of the operation, General Townsend said many of the more than 300 American Special Operations forces now in Syria would help recruit, train and equip local forces in and around Raqqa who are predominantly Syrian Arabs.
The impending operation is further complicated, some independent experts say, because neither the Turks nor the Syrian Kurds view the recapture of Raqqa as one of their top priorities â€” unlike Washington.
â€œThe Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. do not truly desire to shed blood to capture a majority-Sunni Arab city far from their vision of their autonomous borders, while Turkey cares about the operation only insofar as the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. is not allowed to participate in it,â€ said Christopher Kozak, a Syria researcher at the Institute for the Study of War.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said in Brussels on Wednesday that the offensive to oust the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, from Raqqa would begin within weeks.
â€œThis is, as always, a matter when youâ€™re positioning forces and so forth, we have a plan to do that and a schedule to do that,â€ Mr. Carter told reporters. â€œWeâ€™re going to execute to that plan.â€
Mr. Carter met with the Turkish defense minister, Fikri Isik, and the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on Wednesday in Brussels, where he emphasized the â€œneed for the coalition to maintain pressure on ISIL on multiple fronts,â€ according to a Pentagon news release. â€œAll sides agreed to maintain frequent communication on the full range of security interests, and to continue their close coordination and continued transparency in the coalition effort to deal ISIL a lasting defeat,â€ the statement said.
An American military official said the Raqqa operation would take place in roughly three phases.
Phase one, he said, is what the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State has been doing for months: preparatory airstrikes in and around Raqqa to knock out command-and-control and fighting positions. Phase two, to begin in the coming weeks, will be to isolate Raqqa with the available forces â€” mostly Syrian Kurds, with Syrian Arabs, too. Phase three will be the fight for Raqqa itself, which American officials say they hope will be conducted mostly by Syrian Arabs, given that the city is majority Sunni Arab.
General Townsend compared Islamic State plotting in Raqqa to planning by the group in Manbij, which was retaken from the Islamic State in August.
Manbij was the last stop on the route out of Syria for Islamic State militants headed to Europe. But the actual plotting regularly began in Raqqa. Militants moved from there to Manbij before slipping over the border into Turkey and then onward to Europe.
Plotting underway in Raqqa now, General Townsend said, â€œis not unlike what emanated from Manbijâ€ before that city was retaken. â€œComing out of Manbij, we found links to individuals and plot streams to France, the United States, other European countries,â€ he said.
â€œWe know that this is going on in Raqqa as well,â€ General Townsend said. â€œAnd so I think thatâ€™s why itâ€™s necessary to get down there to Raqqa.â€
The Raqqa fight will take place even as the battle for Mosul, next door in Iraq, is continuing, American military planners say.
Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of American forces in the Middle East, said last week that it was â€œextraordinarily importantâ€ to keep simultaneous pressure on Mosul and Raqqa, if not with ground forces, as with Mosul, at least with a steady pounding of airstrikes.
General Votel acknowledged the challenges of dealing with two pivotal allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria who essentially loathe each other â€” the Turks and the Syrian Kurds. One of his main goals now, he said, is to maintain momentum and â€œto keep everyone moving in the right direction”
By Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt | NYT