GAZIANTEP, TURKEY/WASHINGTON - The offensive to retake Raqqa was heralded as the final nail in Islamic State’s coffin.
But a month after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the pending operation, Washington’s ally on the ground, a Kurdish-dominated militia alliance, remains bogged down in the first phase, seeking only to isolate the Syrian de facto capital of the Islamic State (IS) group.
U.S. airstrikes still appear focused on the surrounding province, hitting oil wellheads controlled by the militants, and tankers and other facilities used by the terror group to store and smuggle oil to Turkey.
IS defense positions in Raqqa’s surrounding villages have remained largely undamaged by U.S. and Western warplanes.
On Monday, the U.S.-led coalition mounted a dozen airstrikes in Syria.
Only two were in Raqqa province and those sorties destroyed three oil wellheads, two oil pump jacks, two oil refinement equipment pieces, an oil tank, and construction equipment, according to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
The previous day, there were also a dozen coalition airstrikes in Syria. Two of them were in Raqqa province, and the terror group’s oil trade was the primary target.
The slowness in taking on the IS militants in Raqqa is prompting some to question whether the assault on the city was ever as close at hand as Carter and Pentagon officials indicated last month.
In an interview with NBC on October 28, the U.S. defense secretary said the assault on the militants’ "capital" would get underway soon.
“It starts in the next few weeks,” he said adding that the plan was always to attack the Syrian city soon after the offensive on Mosul in neighboring Iraq unfolded.
“That has long been our plan, and we will be capable of resourcing both," Carter said.
Some analysts suspect that talking up an impending full-scale offensive on the city was as much designed to spook IS as anything else — aimed at preventing the terror group from dispatching reinforcements to Mosul and bolstering defenses there in the face of the Iraqi assault.
“I was suspicious of the announcement from the start, to be honest,” Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told VOA in an email exchange.
“Everything I’d been told by coalition members suggested we were in no position to initiate anything close to a full-scale assault on Raqqa. I think shaping operations in the surrounding countryside will prolong for some time,” advised Lister, author of the book The Syrian Jihad.
“We shouldn’t underestimate, though, the extent to which the White House is exerting pressure on the Pentagon folks to ‘sustain momentum’ and ‘accelerate’ the fight against ISIS," Lister said, using an acronym for the militant group. "That was behind the premature announcement, in my opinion.”
A Washington-based diplomat insisted most U.S. allies are in agreement that a move on Raqqa should come sooner rather than later in order to crush the self-declared caliphate and sever any lines of escape.
“We want to be able to avoid seeing the most dangerous of them [IS] fleeing the region,” the official said. He suspects the coalition’s plans to oust IS from Raqqa hit an unexpected stumbling block when Republican Donald Trump unexpectedly won the U.S. presidential election.
The official's argument is that the Pentagon is waiting to see what the incoming president wants and with President Obama leaving, “There’s no mandate” for attacking now.
No united force
Some former military officials wonder whether some of the players on the ground are using the U.S. election as a smokescreen.
“There has to be political agreement before you can start the military operation,” cautioned retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, who once led the Pentagon efforts against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq.
“I don’t see a common interest or a common game plan,” Barbero said, pointing to forces loyal to the Syrian regime as well as those under control of Russia, Iran, Turkey and the various Kurdish factions. “I am surprised the Pentagon is talking it up so much."
In addition, there are doubts coalition-backed forces, even if they had the political will, could realistically pull off simultaneous offensives to retake Raqqa and Mosul.
“Those resources focused on Mosul and that current fight are the same capabilities and the same resources that the U.S.-led coalition is going to need for the eventual assault on Raqqa,” said retired Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, the former chief of the Office of Security Cooperation for the U.S. Army in Baghdad. “One has to happen before the other.”
A Turkey-based Western diplomat, who asked not to be named for this article, said part of the delay concerns what force is available to Washington to mount the assault.
“To have the Kurds be the main force is a recipe for disaster -- local Arabs are scared of the Kurds and fear what they will do once they enter the city. ISIS has been highly successful in fanning those fears," the diplomat said.
Another Western diplomat noted that the Arab and Turkmen militias in the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces are not up to the task alone of subduing IS in Raqqa.
“The only force capable are the People’s Protection Units,” the diplomat said, referring to the Kurdish militia known by its abbreviation, YPG.
“Let’s be frank, at best the Arab and Turkmen militias are just self-protection forces for the defense of towns; at worst, some of the militias consist of thugs with criminal backgrounds or they’re rejects from Free Syrian Army,” the diplomat said.
The picture on the ground has become more confused since Carter’s October announcement.
The YPG has become increasingly distracted with the drive by Turkish units and Ankara-backed Syrian rebels in northern Syria in operation Euphrates Shield, which is aimed at driving both IS militants and the Kurds back from Turkey’s border.
“I doubt the YPG will prioritize the capture of Raqqa, when two far more important cities in northern Syria, namely al-Bab and Manbij, are threatened by Turkish-backed forces,” said Michael Horowitz, with the Middle-East-based geopolitical consultancy Prime Source.
Infuriated by Turkish airstrikes on them, YPG commanders last week issued an ultimatum to Washington -- either Turkey’s bombing raids on them stop or they will play no further role in assisting to encircle Raqqa.
Jamie Dettmer reported from Turkey and Jeff Seldin from Washington.