On the road to Raqqa: Kurds close in on Islamic State’s Syrian capital
TAL SAMAN, Syria — “Raqqa we are coming,” say the words spray-painted in Kurdish at the entrance to this empty little town, which lies on the front line of a U.S.-backed advance toward the Islamic State’s capital.
The city of Raqqa is 17 miles away, a tantalizingly short hop to the place showcased in the militants’ propaganda videos as an Islamist utopia, where the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels were planned and where, U.S. officials warn, new plots against the West are being forged.
But a full offensive to retake the city could still be months or more away, despite hopes in Washington that an operation to take the Islamic State’s most symbolically significant stronghold would be well under way before President Obama left office.
A rare visit to the Raqqa front line illustrated how near and yet so far the defeat of the Islamic State remains. The battle for Mosul in neighboring Iraq has stalled, the attack in Berlin has brought home the continued threat of terrorism, and there is still no plan for an offensive on Raqqa, making the war one of the most immediate, and complicated, challenges the Trump administration will have to confront.
Meanwhile, a preliminary operation to isolate and besiege Raqqa is going well. Over the past month, a Kurdish-Arab alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has been slicing briskly through Islamic State lines in the northern and western countryside of Raqqa province. The fighters have captured some 140 villages and nearly 800 square miles of mostly empty rural land on two fronts in a just over a month, encountering little resistance along the way.
This is not the battle for Mosul, where large armored formations are converging from different directions. There are more sheep than soldiers scattered across the empty fields. Flocks trot through the landscape herded by boys on donkeys as the lightly armored pickups and SUVs used by the Kurdish and Arab militia weave among them.
The militants have put up little resistance, firing mortars as the soldiers advance but retreating well before their enemies arrive.