A Syrian rebel group that includes a significant number of Kurdish YPG fighters will move to isolate Raqqa "soon," a move in the fight against Islamic State that could infuriate U.S. ally Turkey.
"The facts are these: the only force that is capable on any near-term timeline are the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the [Kurdish] YPG are a significant portion," General Stephen Townsend, the top general leading the coalition operation against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference Wednesday.
Townsend said the United States is "negotiating" with Turkey, but will have to work through their "difference of opinion" on the inclusion of Kurdish fighters in the Raqqa operation later.
"We're going to go with who can go, who's willing to go soon, and then — once we get initial isolation in position — we will look at how we prosecute the operation further," he said.
President Barack Obama and Turkish leaders Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed the fight against Islamic State in a Wednesday phone call. A White House statement did not specifically mention Raqqa, but said Obama recognized Turkey's efforts in northern Syria and the need for close U.S.-Turkey coordination "to apply sustained pressure" on the militant group.
Short timeline ‘imperative’
Townsend said coalition intelligence feeds have shown "significant external attacks planning" emanating from Raqqa, which has become the focal point of IS external plotting since the Syrian city of Manbij was retaken from the terror group earlier this year.
He said the plans involved attacks against U.S. and European cities, adding to the "imperative" of isolating the town on a "short timeline."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Monday the coalition has also made overlapping the fight for Mosul and Raqqa part of the plan to defeat Islamic State forces. The strategy will force Islamic State to fight on multiple fronts and choose very carefully where to devote the group's resources.
Carter discussed the IS fight with his French and Turkish counterparts Wednesday in Brussels. The talks focused on the need to maintain military cooperation in the area and consolidate recent gains by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces along the Turkey-Syria border.
Townsend says the fight to retake Raqqa from Islamic State fighters will involve "a lot lighter coalition footprint" than the fight underway to retake Mosul.
"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," he said.
Townsend said the fight for Raqqa will likely take longer than the fight for Mosul, despite the smaller geographic size of Raqqa, because the conflict is riddled with several "complicating factors," including the fact the coalition isn't working alongside government forces like it is in Iraq.
"The Syrian regime's involved. The Russians are involved. Turkey's involved. It's hard," he said.