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Attack Against Raqqa Could Begin Soon

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Islamic State controls two major cities that the U.S. wants to take back. There is Mosul in Iraq - we'll hear about that city elsewhere on this program - and then there is Raqqa in Syria. That city is important because the Islamic State considers Raqqa to be its capital. But plans for a U.S.-backed assault on the Syrian city have stalled after hitting some diplomatic tangles. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joined us to explain.

Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What are these tangles? What's the source of that?

BOWMAN: Well, it really revolves around Turkey and the Kurdish forces in Syria. Now, of course, Turkey is on the border with Syria, and the Kurds in Turkey want to carve out a portion of Turkey and create their own state. And the Kurdish fighters in Syria are allied with those Kurdish groups in Turkey, so that's really the main problem here.

And what the U.S. wants to do is move on Raqqa with local fighters. Many of the best fighters are Kurdish troops in Syria, these Kurdish fighters. So Turkey looks at this and says, hey, this is a real problem. We don't trust these Kurds. They're linked to the groups in our country trying to carve out their own country within our state. We don't want those Kurds to be part of this fight heading into Raqqa.

MONTAGNE: And realistically, how likely is Turkey to send its troops across the border down there to fight to get back Raqqa?

BOWMAN: Well, U.S. officials say it's highly unlikely that Turkey would send its troops and armor all the way down into Raqqa. Turkey, now, has moved into Syria with some of their troops and armor. They're taking some of the areas from ISIS. But they think it's more of a bargaining chip - just, you know, basically saying we're going to get down to Raqqa. Don't send the Kurds. They don't think it's going to happen. They just think it's a bluff.

MONTAGNE: We talked with Abdalaziz Alhamza who is a journalist who fled Raqqa from there. He knows ISIS well and says that ISIS has turned it into a fortress.

ABDALAZIZ ALHAMZA: It's super strong because, like, for them, Raqqa's the capital. And losing Raqqa means, like, defeating the Islamic State.

MONTAGNE: So the stakes are very high for the Islamic State. Can the U.S. and Turkey get a deal to launch this offensive?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. officials I speak with say they hope they can work out a deal with the Turks and, again, get this operation to Raqqa starting in the coming weeks. And there are a couple of big reasons for this, Renee. First of all, the humanitarian issues there - there are hundreds of thousands of people. But there's another reason, too, an important reason. Raqqa is where ISIS is planning attacks on Europe and the United States. So they want to get in there to foil any plots against the West.

MONTAGNE: If there is an agreement and the Kurds, Arabs and other fighters do attack Raqqa, defeat ISIS and take control, what then?

BOWMAN: Well, of course, this would be a major victory in the campaign against ISIS. But you would still have a terror danger in the U.S. and Europe with ISIS sleeper cells there. And ISIS will likely go to ground, mount more of a guerrilla campaign in both Syria and Iraq. So an attack on Raqqa and a successful defeat of ISIS here doesn't necessarily mean an end to the fighting here.

MONTAGNE: OK. Well, thanks very much, NPR's Tom Bowman.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.