The Start of the SDF’s Raqqa Offensive

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On November 5th 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) started the so called “Wrath of the Euphrates” offensive, which targets the Islamic State’s Capital of Raqqa. The stated end goal of the operation is the complete capture of Raqqa.1. The troops involved are multi-ethnic and multi-religious. The forces include Arabs, many of whom are from Raqqa, Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians. There are also embedded United States Special Forces.2.,3.

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Discussions surrounding a Raqqa offensive had been on-going for quite some time, however, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had maintained that their assault on Raqqa ought to be in exchange for official political recognition of Rojava.4. As far as has been indicated from reports that have surfaced, this recognition is still yet to be assured, despite the on-going activities. According to one Kurdish YPG fighter, Arabs within the SDF, and especially those from Raqqa, had been eager for the offensive to commence, expressing dismay at the possibility of a delay due to YPG politicking.5.

Regarding the operation, reactions from US CENTCOM (Central Command) appear to be mixed. While they indicated that they would both welcome the offensive and provide support, they also argued against the SDF being the long-term solution for holding Raqqa. General Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, publicly stated that the United States would not allow an attack on the city proper without “involving Turkey and their perspective into the plans”.6. The American command has been trying to balance the wishes of their NATO ally Turkey, with the reality that the SDF is the only force capable, both politically and militarily, of taking Raqqa.

Alongside this, the SDF also plans that Raqqa will be controlled by local groups. They intend that the bulk of the fighting will be done by the Raqqa Military Council, which is indigenous to the city. There are no intentions to include Raqqa into the Rojava federation.7.

The “Wrath of the Euphrates” offensive has so far progressed south along two main axes, Ayn Issa and Suluk. The capture of the village Tal Semen on November 16th was significant, as it has since given the SDF control of the northern bank of the Al-Rey channel.8. The area bordering the channel is mostly farmland, the rest is desert. Overall 26 villages have so far been taken from IS. Although most of them are rather small, Raqqa city is now only 25 km away from the front line.9.

As interested parties follow the events on the ground, it seems that for now the offensive has stalled. Some reports have alleged that the break has occurred because of the recent intensification of hostilities between Turkey and SDF in Northern Aleppo, and whilst plausible, the reports remain unconfirmed.10.

Update November 2017

In October 2017, nearly one year after the announcement of the offensive, Raqqa was finally captured and taken under control by the SDF. The battle for the city itself took about four months and left most of the city in ruins. Another problem is that large parts of the city are still mined and booby-trapped. Even with help by the International Coalition against the Islamic State it will take a large amount of ressources and time to recreate the pre-war status of the city.11.

Sebastian Gonano

Sebastian is a history student currently doing his master at TU Dresden. His focus at the International Review is the Syrian and Iraqi Civil wars, terrorism and the geopolitics surrounding it.


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