As reported by the Associated Press:
After the battlefield of Iraq’s Mosul, the next major campaign against the Islamic State group will be to take its de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa. The Pentagon has drawn up a secret plan to do that, likely leaning on local allies with stepped up American support.
While it’s no secret that both Turkey, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Assadist/Russian militaries aim to conquer Raqqa, the AP reports few of them are willing to commit to a full-on assault for fear of weakening themselves in other vital areas.
Most significantly, however:
The top U.S. commander in the campaign against IS, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, has said he believes Raqqa and Mosul will be taken within six months.
Should Raqqa collapse that soon, it will remove a major obstacle to a ceasefire in Syria. The Islamic State and other associated jihadists like al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, have been excluded from the halting Geneva peace talks. Six days ago, the major city of Homs suffered a jihadi suicide bomb against the Assadist intelligence services. So long as Sunni supremacists are on the map, there can be no settlement in Syria.
The conquest of Raqqa will be telling as to who holds what influence in post-Islamic State Syria. Should the SDF carry out the assault, it will give the United States, the SDF’s main backer, a much bigger say in the final deal. Should it be Turkey, Ankara will be able to wedge out the Kurdish-heavy SDF from the peace talks. Should it fall to the Assadist/Russian coalition, it will restore Assad’s control of a key Euphrates river town and move the country much closer to its status quo ante of 2011.
We now know how Mosul will shake out, with U.S. and Iranian-backed Iraqi government forces restoring Baghdad’s rule to the Sunni majority. That will return Iraq to its pre-IS invasion condition, with Baghdad juggling Sunni regions while avoiding clashes with Kurdistan.
Key to all this outcome will be how far Donald Trump is willing to go in the destruction of the Islamic State. IS is collapsing; America does not need to deploy much power to accelerate that. But doing so exposes the president to political risk back home. Trump has not been bothered by that before, yet his advisors, especially his Defense secretary James Mattis, may feel differently.
The end game of Syria is shaping up. They who conquer Raqqa will be instrumental in defining post-war Syria.