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U.S.-Backed Militia Opens Drive on ISIS Capital in Syria

By supporting the advance on Raqqa, 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.

In a move to assuage Turkish concerns, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a previously unannounced visit to Ankara on Sunday for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, the Turkish army said, without giving further details.

The foreign ministry could not be reached for comment on Sunday, but last month Ankara asked Washington to exclude the Syrian Kurdish militias from the operation to liberate Raqqa, saying that Turkey was ready to provide military support.

Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had told President Obama in a phone call that Turkey was capable of ridding Raqqa of the Islamic State by itself. Turkey wants to start the push on Raqqa after operations in Iraq, including the offensive against Mosul, have been completed, the deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, said at a news conference last week.

France on Sunday supported the decision to begin the battle against the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqqa at the same time as the Iraqi-led offensive on Mosul is underway. “I believe it will be necessary,” the defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said on Europe 1 radio.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said on Sunday that he welcomed the start of the militia’s operation. “The effort to isolate, and ultimately liberate, Raqqa marks the next step in our coalition campaign plan,” he said in a statement.

United States military officials said the Raqqa operation was being undertaken in roughly three phases.

Phase one is what the American-led coalition has been doing for months: conducting scores of preparatory airstrikes in and around Raqqa to knock out command-and-control and fighting positions and other assets of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“They don’t have the ability to move large troop formations, large convoys, but they do have the ability to move into and out of the area,” Colonel Dorrian told reporters in Washington last week. “What we’ve done to try to limit that is we’ve conducted a lot of strikes on their favored supply routes and infiltration routes.”

Phase two, which the Syrian Democratic Forces announced on Sunday, is the campaign to isolate Raqqa. The aim is to cut it off from resupply with the available forces — about two-thirds of them Syrian Kurds and one-third Syrian Arabs, Pentagon officials say.

“The intent, though, is to intensify that effort, to move closer to the city, to envelop the city and then once everything is in place, to liberate it,” Colonel Dorrian said last week.

Phase three will be a 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. But Colonel Dorrian said that might not happen for some time. “Right now, I don’t think that all the forces that’ll be involved in that liberation campaign for Raqqa are yet trained,” he said.

Colonel Dorrian said that providing additional training to militia members who have already been involved in the fighting would take about two weeks. “We’ll let that play out, and we’ll see how long that takes and we’ll see how many forces will be generated,” he said.

More than 300 United States Special Forces are in Syria advising the Kurdish-Arab coalition forces, but Colonel Dorrian said the Syrian opposition forces would dictate the timing of the ground operations and training, and the recruitment of additional Arab troops for the recapture of Raqqa.

“There is an intent to enlarge the force, and in particular the Arab contingent of the force, because we do understand that Raqqa is primarily an Arab city,” Colonel Dorrian said. “We do understand that there is a political dimension and a local acceptance dimension to this fight.”

Senior Pentagon officials have stressed for weeks that the fight to retake Raqqa should begin soon — within weeks — to disrupt planning believed to be underway there to stage terrorist attacks on the West.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top American military commander in Iraq, has declined to name a specific threat emanating from Raqqa against Western targets but described a general “sense of urgency.” Speaking to reporters in Washington two weeks ago, 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 militants’ capital.

General Townsend stressed that Kurdish militia fighters would be a major part of the ground force used to isolate Raqqa, despite Turkish objections.

“We’re going to go with who can go, who’s willing to go soon,” he told reporters at the Pentagon during a video news briefing from Baghdad. “And then, once we get the initial isolation in position, we’ll look at how we prosecute the operation further.”

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, predominantly Syrian Arabs.

Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of American forces in the Middle East, has acknowledged the challenges of dealing with two pivotal allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria who essentially loathe each other — the Turks and the Syrian Kurds.

One of his main goals now, he said recently, is to maintain momentum and “to keep everyone moving in the right direction.”

Source: NYT > World

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