Raqqa: Are French airstrikes preparing for a ground offensive?

Raqqa: Are French airstrikes preparing for a ground offensive?
Analysis: French airstrikes against IS after the Paris attacks have reportedly not been very effective, but they could be a prelude to a Kurdish ground offensive supported by coalition airpower.
3 min read
18 November, 2015
Kurdish YPG fighters may be used in an offensive against Raqqa [Getty]
The French retaliatory strikes against the Islamic State group in Raqqa, after Friday's deadly Paris attacks, do not seem to have had much of an effect, as the targets hit were reportedly mostly abandoned buildings.

A main factor behind the reported ineffectiveness of coalition airstrikes against IS has likely been due to a lack of coordination between international coalition air forces over Syrian and Iraqi skies and forces on the ground.

This increases the probability that a new strategy - similar to the liberation of Kobane, Tal Abyad and more recently Sinjar - might be adopted in Raqqa, which entails the use of Kurdish and other forces on the ground backed by coalition air support.

     IS manoeuvres have rendered the very costly coalition strike against it largely ineffective

According to Syrian sources, intensive air cover would represent a prelude to a ground invasion of Raqqa, IS' self-proclaimed capital, carried out by Kurdish forces who enjoy the west's trust.

Further, Raqqa's small size might contribute to the success of any possible ground invasion, which observers believe the French President Francios Hollande alluded to when he said that French airstrikes were only the start of his country's military campaign.

Local activists said that French warplanes had conducted 34 airstrikes on Raqqa over the past few days, however the majority of sites targeted were understood to have been abandoned by IS, which has only left a few guards at each site.

Mahmoud Abdul Razzaq, a Syrian activist from Raqqa told al-Araby al-Jadeed that IS fighters regularly change their locations in the city and no longer congregate in large numbers for fear of being targeted by coalition airstrikes.

The group adopted the strategy of emptying its bases and dismantling permanent checkpoints it has established since the start of the international coalition's bombing campaign in September 2014.

The only locations the group has not abandoned are the prisons in which it holds large numbers of opponents, using the prisoners as human shields to protect against coalition strikes.

These IS manoeuvres have rendered the very costly coalition strike against it largely ineffective, as IS has not been forced to retreat from any location it controls. It is thought the airstrikes are not coordinated with ground troops advancing on IS positions.

Coalition airstrikes have also resulted in large numbers of civilian causalities.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented the death of 122 civilians in IS-controlled areas due to airstrikes conducted between February and June 2015.

However, there have also been several successes for the coalition, in which IS forces were dealt heavy blows after coordinated efforts from ground troops and coalition airpower.

Observers believe the most successful of these was in Kobane at the start of this year, where the resilience of Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) forced IS to send in more fighters to the city, allowing coalition forces to target supply lines, and kill more than 1,000 IS fighters, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

A ground attack by Kurdish forces in June on the Syrian city of Tal Abyad coupled with an intense coalition bombing campaign on IS positions in the city drove the group out of the area, in another example of successful coordination.

A similar attack was conducted by Kurdish and local Arab forces in the Hasakah countryside, northeast Syria, which cleared large areas of IS presence.

Further, the recently formed Syrian Democratic Forces - an alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Armenian and Turkmen militias - is currently trying to replicate the experiences of Kobane and Tal Abyad to drive IS out of Hasakah's eastern and southern countryside.