Reports of ISIS being on the run from both the U.S.-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Russian-backed Syrian government forces have now been augmented by an estimated time frame in which ISIS will be removed from their de-facto stronghold in Raqqa, Syria. Kurdish commander Nowruz Ahmed told Reuters that she believes the fight to eradicate ISIS from Raqqa will be over in approximately two months. The fall of the first city ISIS captured in either Iraq or Syria would be as symbolically significant as it is militarily.
For those in the West preoccupied with news events distracting from such progress against ISIS and other foreign policy achievements, the seemingly imminent demise of ISIS’ foremost stronghold may come as somewhat of a surprise. It shouldn’t, as the resources dedicated to eradicating ISIS on their own turf by the current administration are the antithesis of the temerity shown in arming and assisting Syrian rebels by the prior.
Under the direction of Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis, the United States has deployed elite special forces who have led the charge in clearing ISIS from Syria alongside primarily Kurdish forces. These forces have taken a long-term view of stability in Raqqa, making it their mission to train forces that will be tasked with holding the city once ISIS is removed. As we have seen in Afghanistan, radical Islamic groups will regroup and attempt to recover lost ground, particularly when U.S. troops are reduced in ranks. It is only a matter of time, and the training aspect of U.S. forces in Raqqa is aimed at combating future insurgencies.
Military Times spoke to Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S. led coalition, who commented on the strategy:
‘The Americans are not "kicking down doors," Dillon added. Rather, their primary mission is to advise partner forces, though they are authorized to defend themselves.’
While preparations for future peace in Raqqa are being made, the conditions in the city at the moment are hectic. Still, the past two months or so have represented a reprieve from ISIS’ reign of terror. It is important to note that before attacking, U.S.-led forces dropped leaflets upon Raqqa urging the extremists’ surrender. After predictably refusing, a campaign employing both foot soldiers and airstrikes was deployed.
Sources taking a critical view of the United States’ airstrikes (unleashed in ISIS strongholds yet incurring approximately 465 civilian casualties, according to the Wall Street Journal) fail to account for the reality that has called for such a military response. This, it should be noted, is the reality which unfolds when ISIS is permitted to achieve such territorial gains in the first place. Civilian casualties, while unfortunate, are unavoidable aspects of the darkness before the light which will begin to emerge from an ISIS-free Syria.
Accounts of increasing freedom in Raqqa in the past couple months illustrate the Islamic State’s heightened desperation. The Wall Street journal reported extensively the many changes within Raqqa that have unfolded as ISIS becomes more concerned with the fight against a two-headed front, unable to enforce their particularly cruel form of Sharia Law as they have grown preoccupied and desperate for funds:
‘Islamic State, long bent on expanding its religious empire with shocking brutality in the form of public executions, crucifixions and whippings, is desperately focused on its own survival.
Until a few months ago, public squares were lined with decomposing bodies of those who had run afoul of Islamic State’s religious rules or bureaucracy.
Instead of ruthlessly enforcing no-smoking decrees and dress codes, though, militants now are doing whatever they can to hold on to areas still controlled by the group—and revenue needed to help keep Islamic State afloat financially.’ (Wall Street Journal)
One example of ISIS’ pivot away from overt, intentionally public punishments toward ones which seek to extract whatever funds possible from ‘violators’ of ISIS’ tenets is that of two women who were determined to be in violation of the strict dress code. Instead of being whipped, the punishment typically reserved for dress-code violating women, they were forced to purchase all-covering veils from ISIS for a price equivalent to $40 U.S. dollars.
Indeed, it is a desperate time for ISIS. No longer can they afford to simply abuse those they have long subjugated, now they must use them as a piggybank to fund their last-ditch war efforts, scant as those pennies may be in war-torn Raqqa.
While the UN estimates that the 230,000 citizens who have had the opportunity to flee Raqqa in recent months and weeks have done so, it is estimated that 25,000 civilians remain under IS control in the city. The cohabitation of citizens and ISIS fighters due to what is essentially detainment by the latter is the primary contributor to the collateral damage which some airstrikes have caused. Still, efforts to remove as many innocents from the city as possible remain underway, both by the UN and U.S.-led SDF forces.
It is somewhat of a wonder how the estimated 2,500 ISIS fighters remaining in Raqqa have managed to keep the far-larger citizenry from fleeing, especially considering that many of the ISIS fighters captured have been found to be injecting amphetamines as a means to stay alert and fighting. With an estimated 55 percent of Raqqa cleared, it is only a matter of months until ISIS’ fighters, without a stable source of water and waning food sources, succumb.
The question, then, will be how the primarily Kurdish SDF forces, now backed by the United States, will proceed with respect to the Assad government, and by association Russia. In June, the United States released a statement which accused the Assad government of attacking Kurdish forces via fighter jet. Assad issued a statement this past Sunday which said unless the U.S. cuts ties with the Kurds – who the Assad regime has routinely labeled terrorists – no consideration will be given to a U.S. presence in Syria:
“There will be neither security cooperation, nor the opening of embassies, nor a role for certain states that say they want to find a way out [of Syria’s war], unless they explicitly cut their ties with terrorism.” (Asia Times)
The bellicose approach that Assad has taken toward the Kurds, known for being persecuted in several Islamic nations, makes it likely that ongoing conflict between the SDF, backed by the United States, and the Assad regime will continue. So, while the impending eradication of ISIS represents a significant victory for the entire globe, it is far from the end of conflict and human rights violations in Syria.