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Raqqa Offensive Should Wait for Fall of Mosul: Turkey

In this photo released on April 25, 2015, by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, members of the Islamic State group, paint a decoration on a main square in Raqqa, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on April 25, 2015, by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, members of the Islamic State group, paint a decoration on a main square in Raqqa, Syria. (Militant website via AP)

The U.S. is intent on beginning an offensive against the Islamic State's stronghold in Syria before the fall of Mosul despite mounting opposition from NATO ally Turkey, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday.

"We think this is the right moment to begin pushing in Raqqa" in northeastern Syria although the Iraqi Security Forces have yet to reach the city limits of Mosul in northwestern Iraq, said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. "There's a plan in place to begin this."

Cook offered no timeline for the start of a Raqqa offensive but noted that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told NBC News last week that the Raqqa advance could begin "within weeks."

Cook also was vague on whether the Raqqa plan would begin with a lengthy "isolation phase" or an actual assault on the city itself.

Turkey has vehemently objected to the timing of the Raqqa offensive and U.S. proposals for the makeup of local forces that would conduct the assault.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş renewed those complaints Monday, saying the Raqqa offensive should be put off until Mosul is retaken and Turkey completes its own "Euphrates Shield" operation to clear the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from border areas.

"Turkey's idea on a Raqqa operation is clear," Kurtulmus said. "We are for [an operation] in Raqqa to be made consisting of the people of Raqqa.

"It is our opinion that it will be the correct thing to conduct -- both militarily and strategically -- after the Mosul and Euphrates Shield operations end," he said, according to Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper.

Last week, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said it was urgent to move against Raqqa to disrupt terror plots being planned there against the U.S. and Europe.

"We think there's an imperative to get isolation in place around Raqqa because our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external operations attacks planning going on, emanating, centralized in Raqqa," Townsend said in a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon.

Townsend said he expected that the Syrian Kurdish YPG, or Popular Protection Units, would be part of the local forces that would move on Raqqa, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately rejected the U.S. plan. Turkey has labeled the YPG, widely considered the most able of the local rebel forces in Syria, a terrorist organization.

When asked about the Turkish objections, Cook said, "We continue to talk on a regular basis with the Turkish leadership about the best approach to addressing the fight for Raqqa. But we have to keep the pressure on and we have to move forward and challenge [the Islamic State] in its so-called capital of its caliphate."

Turkey and the U.S. have also been at odds over the Mosul offensive. Turkey has about 500 troops outside Bashiqa, north of Mosul, who have been training local tribes for the eventual occupation of Mosul, and it has rejected Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's demands for their removal.

Turkey, a member of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, has also offered to join the air offensive against Mosul, but the U.S. has thus far rejected the offer.

On the outskirts of Mosul on Monday, troops of Iraq's elite Counter Terror Services units were within a mile of the city limits and were poised to begin advancing into the city itself, an Iraqi general said.

"The soldiers of the counterterrorism force are advancing very fast. I wouldn't say a matter of days but a matter of hours before" they begin entering the city, Gen. Talib Shegati said in an interview with state-run Iraqiya TV.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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