The Islamic State is shifting gears in the wake of intense strikes from French and Russian warplanes. Yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that many militiamen and their families are transferring from the “capital” Raqqa to Mosul, Iraq. Among them is the group’s leader, on the run after 33 Islamists were killed in the latest bombings.
Don’t think of it as a retreat. Those still in Raqqa are organizing. They’ve fled their known locations, training camps and headquarters, which have been targeted several times by French air strikes, to hide among the remaining 350,000 civilians in the abandoned houses of refugees. At the same time, they’re controlling the streets, preventing anyone else from seeking shelter in the countryside.
Much of what we know of average life in Raqqa comes from refugees abroad, in phone contact with friends and relatives in Syria. Internet connection is blocked by self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. The caliphate should be expecting a land invasion by Kurdish forces (the newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the coalition) and ill-defined Arab forces, perhaps anti-Assad militias that have been financed by the West for years.
Raqqa is in the crosshairs, and ISIS knows it. Kurdish Syrian forces tore through the Islamists in the city of Hol and are now marching toward Shaddadah, south of Hasakah and 93 miles east of Raqqa. If taken, Syrian Kurds of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and the peshmerga would assume control of border areas in both Iraq and Syria — a corridor previously used by the Islamic State to shuttle men, weapons and oil. They would open up a front in the Syrian Kurdish mountains of Abdul-Aziz, the first step toward Raqqa.
The Islamic State cannot wait any longer: It is preparing for a possible direct confrontation, placing defenses around the city and preventing the escape of civilians — potential human shields. They’re mingling with the people, avoiding the use of military vehicles at night and walking the alleyways to avoid being seen. They’re digging tunnels and trenches, say activists in the city, and have placed fuel containers along the outer perimeter, to ignite in the event of an outside attack.
These are only precautions. Thirty-three militiamen killed in three days is not many, and by mixing with civilians they could curb Western aerial attacks, which in recent days have focused on uninhabited areas and on hundreds of trucks carrying crude oil.
The leaders have preferred to move to Mosul, where they’ll be under less surveillance by the international coalition. But that could soon change, as well. The second Iraqi city is almost completely surrounded: from Sinjar to the west and Erbil to the east. The road to Syria is bisected by the peshmerga.
The response to ISIS is limited, however, by friction among its enemies. Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the U.S. strategy, calling it contradictory: “They want to catch a fish without getting their feet wet.” The focus of the disagreement is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the United States does not want to help indirectly. The Russians, meanwhile, urge bombarding all rebel territory.
But, raid or not, the problem remains the limited nature of the global response to the caliphate. In a year and a half, there have been no concrete measures to erode its vast revenues from black market oil sales and big donations by private sympathizers in the Gulf. According to a report by Reuters, ISIS enjoys assets worth $2 trillion, including crude oil smuggling, minerals and natural resources, extortion, and taxes. It’s too much money to stay out of the world financial system.
Similarly, there was never a serious effort to control the movement of new members across Turkey’s borders. For a long time the Turkish authorities, with the support of the secret services, the army and gendarmerie, have allowed the Islamists to enter Syria with weapons and vehicles. For them, the porous border was necessary to demolish the budding democratic Kurdish confederation theorized by the PKK and implemented in Rojava.
Now that ISIS, like Frankenstein’s monster, is uncontrollable, even Turkey says it wants to do its part, by closing the Syrian border and perhaps launching a military operation, said Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu. Ankara announced a joint operation with the U.S. to monitor the Syrian border — a year and a half too late.