Raqqa is headquarters for ISIS’ shrinking caliphate. It is where the ISIS terrorists say they planned major attacks on Paris and Brussels, and where new attacks against the West undoubtedly are being hatched.
The fall of Raqqa wouldn’t mean the end of the threat ISIS poses. Due to the Obama administration’s obliviousness and indifference, ISIS had time to spread its tentacles and its influence. Nonetheless, expulsion from its seat power would be a big blow to ISIS.
Will ISIS be expelled next year? This insightful report by Liz Sly of the Washington Post suggests that it probably will not be. Kurdish forces are within 17 miles of Raqqa. However, there apparently are no plans for an offensive against that city, and politics may stand in the way of formulating and carrying out an effective plan.
The main political problem is that the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia that has spearheaded the fight against ISIS in Eastern Syria, is anathema to Turkey, the other main anti-ISIS player in the region. It may also lack sufficient support among the local Arab population.
The resurgent Assad regime also looms. It opposes Kurdish expansion, and having conquered Aleppo, might well move on Raqqa with Russian backing. This prospect perhaps increases the possibility that Raqqa will fall in 2017, but raises major questions about what would happen next. Four powers — ISIS, the YPG, the Assad regime, and the Free Syrian Army — might find themselves entangled.
One of Donald Trump’s first foreign policy challenges will be to navigate the U.S. through the Raqqa conundrum. He has indicated (1) that he’s committed to seeing ISIS defeated in Raqqa and (2) that he envisages accomplishing this with Russian help.
Unless he performs a near miracle of diplomacy, however, taking Raqqa with Russian help will entail turning against both the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish forces we’re presently backing — forces that have already succeeded in taking substantial chunks of territory from ISIS. It will also entail handing Raqqa back to Assad and his Iranian backers.
This would be an evil in itself. It might also pave the way for the rise of instability and/or rebellion, which could easily play into the hands of ISIS or a like-minded successor.
Such are the problems bequeathed to Donald Trump by his feckless predecessor. Happy New Year, Mr. President-elect.