Peter Brookes: Battle for Raqqa underway, could take some time

You’re not hearing much about it in the news with so many other big stories out there today, but the battle for retaking Raqqa – the capital of the Islamic State caliphate in Syria – is reportedly well underway.

This fight has been some three years coming, since ISIS took the city in 2014 from the Syrian army. The assault comes none too soon for us and others, considering past and recent ISIS-related terrorist attacks at home and abroad.

Britain has had a horrendous period with ISIS-tied attacks in Manchester and London. Who can forget the ISIS-related violence against innocents in Paris or Orlando, among others over the last few years?

While reported progress in taking back the Syrian city seems to be going much better than one would expect considering the strategic importance of Raqqa to ISIS (it is, after all, its last remaining major territorial stronghold), its fighters could very well dig in.

Raqqa’s loss would also be a major blow to the terror group’s internal psyche and its external image.

The battle for Mosul in Iraq, the city where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the Islamic State caliphate in 2014, has been going on now since early last fall, stretching now into its eighth month.

The battle for Raqqa could easily take some time, too, in light of the years that ISIS has had to prepare the city for bloody, door-to-door urban warfare just like we’ve seen in Mosul since that fight began last October.

If the Islamic State decides to rumble in Raqqa, we can expect shooting fields of fire, snipers, booby traps, tunnels, car bombs, suicide bombers, weaponized (hobby) drones and “civilian shields.”

It could be quite ugly, but at least we’ve a good idea of what we’re up against.

Like in Mosul, U.S. forces will provide military advice and assistance, weapons, intelligence and air power to partners, this time to the Syrian Democratic Forces , SDF, made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs.

But does the fall of Raqqa mean the end of ISIS? Probably not.

Considering the reported ease of gains so far in taking back the caliphate’s capital, ISIS could’ve decided to make its last stand somewhere else in Syria beyond Raqqa, prolonging its existence by trading space for time.

We could certainly see a low-level ISIS insurgency ignite in Syria and/or Iraq; we should anticipate that its former fighters might move elsewhere in the Middle East or depart the region altogether for Europe, Asia and/or North America, forming networks and/or cells.

Rousting the Islamic State from Raqqa also doesn’t mean the end of ISIS’ poisonous – and sometimes strangely popular – ideology, either.

Like any terrorist group it will look for a place where it can survive and thrive. ISIS will seek a location where chaos, instability, government weakness and/or lawlessness will allow it to recruit, plan, train and operate. Regrettably, these places exist.

It could also look to join up with al-Qaeda – again.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald.  Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter.