No Plan Yet to Retake Raqqa: US Military

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves the militant group's flag in Raqqa, Syria on June   29, 2014. (Reuters)
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves the militant group's flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. (Reuters)

The U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have the beginnings of a plan to retake the ISIS stronghold of Mosul but nothing is in the works as yet to reclaim Raqqa in northeastern Syria, a U.S. military spokesman said Thursday.

"Here in Iraq, we have a much more formal planning capability" in coordination with the ISF and its formal structure, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Baghdad. "In Syria, obviously we don't have that."

"What we have is a very small number of U.S. advisers providing advice to essentially an irregular army called the Syrian Democratic Forces," Warren said. The SDF includes factions that sometimes fight with each other and "we're trying to bring together the others. As a result, there is a much less developed plan for Raqqa," the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Warren said.

In a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon, Warren said that the Syrian rebels aligned with the U.S. continued to make progress in taking territory east of Raqqa to sever links between Raqqa and Mosul, but actions against Raqqa itself were limited to coalition airstrikes against ISIS leadership and strikes to degrade ISIS' defenses.

Warren said he could not give an estimate on the number of fighters loosely allied in the SDF, but said it was likely in the "tens of thousands. Quite frankly, that number fluctuates a lot," as rebels fight for a limited amount of time and then return to their home villages, he said.

In recent news conferences and congressional testimony, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have repeatedly said that retaking Mosul and Raqqa was the primary objective in an "accelerated' campaign to defeat ISIS.

In Iraq, Warren basically confirmed reports from the Iraqis themselves that the 15th Division of the ISF was having difficulty moving out from a Mosul staging base at Makhmour, about 60 miles south of Mosul, because of ISIS resistance and continuing rocket fire attacks that occasionally are targeted ineffectively at a new U.S. Marine fire base in the area.

"The Marines are there just temporarily" as Task Force Spartan, Warren said, but "we don't have an end date for them yet." About 200 Marines and four 155mm howitzers from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit secretly deployed to Makhmour last month. On March 19, Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed and eight other Marines were wounded by ISIS rocket fire.

Warren said that the position set up by the Marines and called "Fire Base Bell" has now been renamed as the "Kara Soar Counter-Fire Complex." He said that the Marines "fire every day in support of Iraqi maneuver" forces.

However, Warren said the Iraqis were meeting resistance as they attempt to take villages north of Makhmour and the Iraqi units also were experiencing desertions. On Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Najm Abdullah al-Jubbouri, commander of Iraqi forces in the region, said the offensive out of Makhmour had been put on hold to await reinforcements, Reuters reported.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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