ARLINGTON, Va. — The commander for U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria said that, with Iraqi forces still yet to plunge inside Mosul, the coalition is moving forward with urgency on taking the battle to the Islamic State’s capital in Syria — particularly as “an external plot” for a terror attack is being fomented in Raqqa.
Speaking with reporters via video from Baghdad today, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stressed that Syria is a “complicated battle space” as “our Syrian partners in Turkey continue advancing and push ISIL farther from Turkey’s border.”
“We’re working with our allies, our partners, coalition members to refine the military plan for the isolation and eventual liberation of Raqqa. While that planning effort is ongoing, we will continue conducting precision strikes to reduce the enemy’s freedom of movement, attack their leaders and command and control,” Townsend said.
Seeing greater willingness from local populations to rise up against ISIS after having endured their brutal rule, he said, “gives us confidence that ISIL will also be driven from Raqqa.”
One of the challenges with Raqqa will be using “a partnered force rather than the partner being a nation-state’s armed forces like the Iraqi armed forces” and will be “done with a lot lighter coalition footprint.”
“We’ll have fewer coalition troops there, less combat capability there. We’ll have to apply coalition combat support in a different way than we’re doing here in Iraq,” Townsend said. “…There are a lot of regional security concerns that are in competition there. And the Syrian regime’s involved, the Russians are involved, Turkey’s involved, it’s hard. And there’s — oh by the way, there’s a civil war going on right next door.”
“So it’s gonna be a tough — very tough political environment and a security environment, I think, for our effort there.”
Raqqa is a smaller city than Mosul, but because of the complicating factors Townsend guessed “the ultimate liberation of Raqqa will probably take longer than Mosul.”
“I believe that there are sufficient local forces already available for that operation. However, we have a plan to… recruit and equip and train more local forces for that operation. So that’s part of our campaign plan, to generate additional combat power for that future operation,” he said.
The Raqqa effort will rely heavily on the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. “They have an Arab wing which we refer to as the Syrian Arab Corp. That force is fairly robust, over 30,000. And a good portion of them are Kurdish forces, Syrian Kurds. But also, another part of that force is — a significant part of that force is Arabs and other ethnic groups that are from that region,” the general explained.
“So we will train the forces that we need. And specifically, we’re going to try to recruit and train a force that’s from the local area of Raqqa. So that’s what’s made our — one of the factors that’s made our efforts in Northern Syria successful to date, is we have recruited, in each case — and Manbij is a good example of this — we’ve recruited forces from the local area that were part of the assault force to liberate that area. And they form the core of the whole force that will stay.”
Townsend clarified that “most the recruiting will be done not by us, but it will be done by our local partners,” and noted “we haven’t found a shortage of volunteers who want to go fight ISIL or Daesh, as we refer to them.”
“There’s no shortage of folks who want to do that, especially if they’re going back to liberate their own hometown,” he said.
U.S. forces may assist “with specialty courses, weapons, leadership courses, those kind of things — and I don’t think that training will be done in the vicinity of Raqqa.”
Townsend said “there’s an imperative to get isolation in place around Raqqa because our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external operations attacks planning going on, emanating central in — centralized in Raqqa.”
“So, we think it’s very important to get isolation in place around Raqqa to start controlling that environment on a pretty short timeline. So, we’re gonna take the force that we have and it will — we will go to Raqqa soon with that force. And I think that the Syrian Democratic Forces, to include the Kurdish YPG and the Arab — Syrian Arab Corps, will all be part of that force to go and place isolation at Raqqa,” he said.
Pressed on what that external threat could entail, Townsend said he didn’t want to discuss specific intelligence but “we actually aren’t sure how pressing it is, and that’s what’s worrying us.”
“So we’re not sure, we know they’re up to something. And it’s an external plot, we don’t know exactly where, we don’t know exactly when. You can understand this because you’ve been following these kinds of terrorist plots for a number of years, and we’re gonna try to hit if off,” he continued.
“So what we’re doing right now is a pretty much continuous watch and strikes in the Raqqa area when targets emerge that we can strike. And so we’re gonna do those kinds of suppressive fires until we’re ready.”
After the city of Manbij was liberated from ISIS, “we found links to individuals and plot streams to France, the United States, other European countries.”
“So we know that this is going on in Raqqa, as well. And so I think that’s why its necessary to get down there to Raqqa. We know that it’s a focal point of ISIL external operations, planning, plotting.”
On the prospects of the Turks and the Kurds both wanting to join the fight, Townsend said, “We’re willing to march south with anybody — to Raqqa — with anybody who’s willing to join the coalition, follow the direction that the coalition’s taking and to go defeat Daesh in Raqqa and start that pretty soon.”
The general said that the U.S. plan has been “to pressure Mosul and Raqqa simultaneously, or nearly so.”
“We want to pressure Raqqa so that the enemy doesn’t have a convenient place to go,” he said. “He’s got other places to go but he’s gotta make some choices that maybe weren’t his first or second choices.”