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U.S.-Backed Syrian Fighters Begin Assault To Take Back Raqqa From ISIS

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Islamic State, as it calls itself, is claiming responsibility for attacks in Iran today, including one on Iran's Parliament. ISIS enemies have started an assault on the ISIS capital in Syria, Raqqa. Jennifer Cafarella is an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank here in Washington. She's in our studios. Good morning.

JENNIFER CAFARELLA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Did the attack on Iran take you by surprise? It's not a place that we associate with - we associate Iran with sponsoring terror attacks but not being the victim of terror attacks.

CAFARELLA: Sure, it's definitely interesting and certainly a dangerous sign that ISIS has been able to generate this kind of a complex attack in Tehran, which actually requires a lot of advanced planning. And if the reports are true that there are suicide bombers, we also then, of course, have an ISIS bomb-maker somewhere in Tehran or nearby that was able to get those kinds of explosive materials into the capital.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should tell people who may just be waking up the one assault on Iran's Parliament seems to involve gunmen, perhaps with AK-47's, going in, killing people, maybe taking hostages - details are unclear. And there also is a report of a suicide vest used at a different location in Tehran.

So that's happening this morning. And this assault on Raqqa is said to be happening in the last day or so. Can you just walk me through the basics - basics? Who's attacking Raqqa?

CAFARELLA: Sure, well, the assault on Raqqa is led by the United States and the anti-ISIS coalition with a local coalition of anti-ISIS forces that are Syrian. The intent with the operation is, of course, to retake the terrain - the defacto ISIS capital inside of Syria - but also to disrupt this - the exact kind of ISIS global attack that we just saw in Tehran, which had historically been planned from Raqqa.

Now, some of that attack cell has actually moved to a different part of Syria as the anti-ISIS forces have encroached upon Raqqa. So the assault on Raqqa will not prevent attacks like Tehran from happening. But, ideally, they will add some pressure on ISIS and decrease its ability to conduct this kind of attack.

INSKEEP: So the principle, at least, is keep them on the defensive, and maybe they don't have quite the time and space to be on the offensive.

CAFARELLA: Indeed, although the attack in Tehran would seem to invalidate the assumption that we really have them on the defensive, strategically.

INSKEEP: So you said that there are Syrian anti-ISIS forces who are on the ground leading the attack. It's not primarily American forces on the ground. Can we define them a little better? They're Syrian Kurds. Is that right?

CAFARELLA: Sure, so the force that is assaulting Raqqa is led by Syrian Kurds, with a component of local Sunni-Arab forces that the Kurds are leading in this attack.

INSKEEP: Are they all really on the same side?

CAFARELLA: Well, that's a good question, and it's - it's hotly debated. The key issue is actually the question of what the post-ISIS governance of Raqqa looks like. So while these forces are united in their hatred for ISIS and desire to defeat it, there are many different opinions, locally inside of Syria, about what form of governance should replace ISIS. And that debate is actually the one that threatens to fracture this Kurdish-Arab coalition - but also potentially to alienate the civilian population inside of Raqqa that this U.S. partner seeks to liberate.

INSKEEP: Oh, maybe they don't want to be governed by the same ethnic group that ends up governing them.

CAFARELLA: Indeed - well, the same political orientation.

INSKEEP: Political orientation, thank you very much. What is the U.S. role in this offensive on Raqqa?

CAFARELLA: Well, we are enabling the offensive. These local forces, of course, have been equipped, and in many cases trained, by the United States. We're also providing artillery support and the air power, which is really the decisive military element on this battlefield.

INSKEEP: How much of a difference will it make if the U.S. side wins and captures the ISIS capital?

CAFARELLA: Well, look, the recapture of any terrain against ISIS, or from ISIS, is an important win, but it's a tactical win. And I think we do need to ask the questions about whether we are defeating this enemy strategically. If ISIS continues to be able to conduct attacks like the one we just saw in Tehran, their narrative will endure even if we retake their capital.

INSKEEP: They could be like al-Qaida and launch attacks from random, distant places without holding much territory at all.

CAFARELLA: Indeed, especially if they still dominate the narrative.

INSKEEP: Jennifer Cafarella, thanks for coming by. I really appreciate it.

CAFARELLA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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