Secretary of Defense James Mattis told CBS News Sunday night, May 28, that the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group has “accelerated” and shifted to “annihilation tactics.”
This assertion does not square with the indirect talks the United States is secretly conducting with ISIS for its commanders and most of its operational strength to quit Raqqa, its former de facto Syrian capital, and relocate in Al Mayadeen and Abu Kamal in southeastern Syria.
According to DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources, the negotiations are taking place between the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the powerful YPG Syrian Kurdish militia allied with Syrian Arabs. As a result, few ISIS fighters remain in Raqqa. This force is American-trained and armed, and fights under the command of US special forces officers.
The US was motivated in letting these talks go forward by three considerations:
1. A deal would accelerate Raqqa’s fall with a minimum of casualties for the attackers.
2. Raqqa’s liberation would leave almost the entire stretch of Kurdish-ruled territory in northern Syria purged of jihadist terrorists. American forces and their Kurdish allies could then go for control of the northern section of the Syrian-Iraqi border. US and Jordanian special forces, combined with an American-trained Syrian rebel group, have been conducting a parallel campaign for the southern section of that border.
3. If Raqqa can be taken without a battle, the United States can dispense with its Kurdish partners. This would remove a substantial impediment from the path of President Donald Trump’s diplomacy for drawing Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan back from his rapidly-advancing rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For Erdogan, any boost for the Kurdish cause is a red flag. He is therefore fiercely opposed to their participation in the liberation of Raqqa.
The negotiations with ISIS have been ongoing for about ten days. They came on the heels of a deal for ending the Battle for Tabqa, a key Euphrates River town and air base about 50km from Raqqa, by allowing ISIS defenders safe passage to the two Syrian Desert locations, after laying down their arms.
However, in the case of a deal for Raqqa, the Russians have just thrown a spanner in the works.
According to a statement issued by the Russian Defense Department on Saturday, May 27, Moscow knew of the YPG-ISIS talks and decided to sabotage them by placing a Russian siege around the town and its exits to thwart the ISIS retreat.
This episode does not exactly accord with the Defense Secretary Mattis’ assertion Sunday that “We have already shifted from attrition tactics where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria to annihilation tactics where we surround them.”
Neither does it quite fit the ringing call President Donald Trump issued from Riyadh to all Muslim nations to unite against terrorists and “drive them out of this Earth.”