The battle for the city of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, has yet to see ground forces enter the city but there has been substantial activity by an array of forces opposed to ISIS with neighbouring villages and towns fought over.
Within Syria’s charnel house, and in what is the first war to be dominated by reporting via social media, Raqqa’s fate has been brutal occupation by ISIS and targeting by the airpower of the US led coalition and Russia. Reporting on the consequences has been limited to the controversial organisation Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), some of whose small membership no longer reside in Syria. The reasons are sadly obvious: criticising ISIS is a dangerous and lethal activity in a city run by the group and RBSS and people associated with them have incurred the wrath of ISIS through their reporting. As foreign journalists are unable to access either opposition or ISIS held areas in Syria with any degree of safety, reporting from Raqqa is limited to those willing to take a monumental risk from within the city and its surrounding area.
That there will be a battle for Raqqa soon is without doubt, the question lies as to who will undertake what is a dangerous task with further questions as to who will hold and administer the city afterwards. Turkey’s advance has stalled, and is at the whim of its leader, whom is concerned at the consequences of Turkish casualties on his position at home. The Syrian army and its allies are not yet in a position to mount an assault, leaving the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by US artillery and Special Forces, as the most likely to mount a ground assault. In what is a complex microcosm of the Syrian tragedy there are many competitors for territory but seemingly little appetite for being the ones who advance into Raqqa and fight ISIS on the ground. In contrast, there has been little restraint in launching airstrikes as the one thing that all the regional rivals agree on is that ISIS should be comprehensively crushed. Airpower has been used against Raqqa from the outset, often as punishment for ISIS inspired attacks abroad, and it is a notoriously blunt weapon to use when there are no ground forces to aid accuracy. The addition of Russian airpower has further added to this.
Raqqa’s immediate future is unfortunately grim: the ongoing battle for Mosul has demonstrated that defeating ISIS in a city is a laborious task and civilian casualties are a consequence of war. We cannot be certain how an assault on Raqqa will play out, or if it will end with competing forces occupying the city as an attack by government forced cannot be ruled out once ISIS has been engaged by the SDF. Nor can the limited reporting by citizen journalists be taken for granted: it is already terrifyingly risky and an all-out battle with increased airstrikes adds to this.
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Dr Carl Turner,