EPA/Yousseff Rabie Yousseff
A long-awaited military campaign is underway to retake the key northern Syrian city of Raqqa from the so-called Islamic State (IS). With the group apparently losing territory and its de facto central hub now under heavy attack, there arises an obvious question: is this the end of IS?
Alas, the answer has to be a resounding “no”. There is increasing evidence that IS is transforming itself into a long-term insurgency in Iraq and Syria, but also developing into a movement with worldwide reach.
The seriousness of the problem can be gauged by the scale of the assault on Raqqa, which is underway even as IS stubbornly clings on to the Iraqi city of Mosul. The US-led military coalition, with all its resources, is now playing a much more substantial role in both battles.
The Raqqa operation’s frontline paramilitaries are organised by the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) and drawn from Kurdish militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) together with a range of Syrian non-Kurdish militias, both strongly supported by the US. The level of support has increased substantially in recent months; Reuters has reported that as the opposition forces move slowly towards Raqqa, they are having to closely coordinate with the US to avoid “friendly fire” casualties.
Their tactics focus on the careful movement of forces, often on foot, towards the inner city areas IS has fortified and protected, with coalition air power and artillery fire clearing the way. The anti-IS forces are being met with sniper and mortar fire, even though the city’s outer districts are only lightly defended.
The extent of the coalition forces’ involvement is only now becoming clear. The West is now directly and closely involved in the war on the ground as well as in the air; many of these troops might be special forces who prefer to keep a low profile, but nonetheless, the Middle East is once again becoming host to thousands of Western “boots on the ground”.