The US military reportedly plans to launch an offensive against ISIS in Raqqa — the Syrian city that serves as the jihadist “caliphate’s” de facto capital — “within weeks,” according to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, “and not many weeks.”
But while the US is quick to point out that it is leading a coalition in the fight against ISIS, it is only a tenuous coalition at best, including ostensible American allies that oppose each other, namely Turkey and the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” backed by the US and dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units or YPG, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. US policymakers apparently understand the situation is fragile — as made clear by an anonymous quote from an official published Monday in the Washington Post — though it is less clear how far they have thought their plans through.
“This is one of the situations in which we have contacts and influence over all the actors,” the official told the Post. “But we’re not in perfect control.”
Apparently not, considering that if America was “in perfect control” of all of the various parties fighting in Syria, at least hopefully, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, would not be saying he is “appalled and shocked” by the tactics of the US-backed rebels fighting in Aleppo, who have reportedly been using car bombs and mortars fired indiscriminately into civilian neighborhoods controlled by the Syrian government in their war with the Assad regime.
Turkey, meanwhile, has viewed the territorial gains of the YPG-dominated SDF during the war against ISIS with growing concern. Nevertheless, as the Post reports, a “small force of U.S. Special Operations personnel has been operating alongside the Kurdish-led force for months and has assessed it to be sufficient for an assault on Raqqa.” Across the border in Turkey, however, paranoia regarding US covert operations runs deep. Many in the country, and not only in official circles, apparently believed that this summer’s failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was orchestrated by the US government, specifically the CIA. Understandably, in Turkey, US talk of arming a state-designated terrorist group is not the most popular policy proposal.
And in another front in the war against ISIS — the effort to retake Mosul in Northern Iraq — America’s messy military planning seems to yet again be failing to take civilian lives into account. “The U.S.-led coalition has developed plans to target Islamic State militants from the air if they attempt to escape the Iraqi city of Mosul and head west toward Syria, as Iraqi ground forces close in on the city from several sides,” Jim Michaels of USA Today reported Monday. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. air forces in the Middle East, reportedly elaborated on his thinking in making this announcement, saying the plan was about creating “a built-in mechanism to kill them as they are departing.”
Yet it is unclear how Harrigian plans to differentiate fleeing ISIS fighters from fleeing civilians. Presumably, he does not honestly expect Daesh fighters to drive out of Mosul in choreographed formation in their pickup trucks, theatrically waving black flags like they do in their propaganda videos. “The Pentagon has acknowledged there is no simple solution to prevent militants from grabbing civilian hostages or simply escaping in small numbers,” Michaels notes. “But the coalition is beefing up surveillance, and Iraq’s government is encouraging civilians to stay put and avoid trying to flee, lessening the likelihood they will be grabbed as human shields.”
Later in the very same article, however, Michaels notes that the US strategy to mitigate civilian deaths is apparently the exact opposite of the Iraqi government’s. “Plans for the Mosul offensive, which began Oct. 17, included a route to allow civilians to escape from the city and avoid its total destruction in case the Islamic State has nowhere to turn and tries to make a last stand,” he writes. “‘They don’t want to besiege the city and prevent civilians from escaping,’ said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.”
According to a report from NBC News, meanwhile, the eventual defeat of ISIS in Mosul could unleash another million refugees from the area, on top of the huge numbers that have already fled, while hundreds of thousands more remain trapped in Aleppo and Raqqa amidst the ongoing violence.