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Political Obstacles May Hinder Retaking Of 2 ISIS Holdouts


Iraqi forces are slowly moving into the city of Mosul and they are facing fierce resistance from Islamic State fighters. Next door in Syria, local forces have just begun their own operations to recapture the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS. NPR's Tom Bowman takes a step back and looks at the efforts by the United States to manage this massive operation. And he reports that while there are military challenges, the greatest obstacle could be coalition politics.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The man in charge of the coalition to defeat the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq is an American, Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend.


STEPHEN TOWNSEND: Good morning. It's evening here in Baghdad.

BOWMAN: That's Gen. Townsend speaking recently to Pentagon reporters. What the Americans bring to the fight are three things - hundreds of commandos to kill and capture ISIS leaders, thousands of trainers to help the Iraqi army and the Syrian rebels. And maybe more important - airstrikes, tens of thousands, hitting everything from ISIS troops and trucks to artillery pieces and headquarters buildings.


TOWNSEND: We will continue conducting precision strikes to reduce the enemy's freedom of movement, attack their leaders and command and control. Because we understand that defeating them in Iraq and Syria is an essential step in the defeat of ISIL around the world.

BOWMAN: U.S. officials are confident Iraqi ground forces have the momentum in Mosul. And now the focus will shift Raqqa, next door in Syria. But the fighting force there is nothing like Iraq's organized army. It's more a collection of Syrian, Arab and Kurdish fighters.

CHRIS KOZAK: We've been very hard pressed to find said partners and build said partners on the ground.

BOWMAN: Chris Kozak is an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

KOZAK: That's why Raqqa is going on a slower time scale than Mosul right now, I would argue, because of these difficulties.

BOWMAN: Officials say Mosul could take weeks. Raqqa may take months. So this could be an early issue for President Trump. Still, Gen. Townsend said he supports heading toward Raqqa with the forces that have assembled.


TOWNSEND: I believe that there are sufficient local forces already available for that operation. However, we have a plan to recruit and equip and train more local forces for that operation.

BOWMAN: But Gen. Townsend's confidence soon faded when talk turned to politics. The problem is this - the Kurds make up the backbone of those Syrian fighters, known as the SDF, heading toward Raqqa. And neighboring Turkey, a U.S. ally, doesn't want those Kurds taking part. That's because Turkey sees them as an extension of a group mounting terrorist attacks in Turkey. When a reporter raised all this with Gen. Townsend, who appeared by satellite link at the Pentagon, this is what he said.


TOWNSEND: That's a tough one. I would use my out and say that our connection is garbled, but the truth is I heard the question. As you've correctly laid out the problem there, Turkey doesn't want to see us operating with the SDF anywhere and particularly in Raqqa.

BOWMAN: The Pentagon's top officer, Gen. Joseph Dunford, secretly flew to Turkey and worked things out, at least for the time being. The Raqqa offensive started with those Kurdish forces. But analysts like Aaron Stein at the Atlantic Council say the tensions with Turkey are not going away.

AARON STEIN: The fundamental problem in Syria is that the Turks oppose the ground force that the United States works most closely with. That's their number one security threat, the expansion of Kurdish control in Syria.

BOWMAN: And Turkey also presents a headache next door in Iraq. Turkish forces set up a base inside the country to keep an eye on the Kurds it deems terrorists and have a say in post-ISIS politics.

PATRICK MARTIN: Turkey has a small military presence northeast of Mosul, ostensibly at a base to train a local militia.

BOWMAN: Patrick Martin is also an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

MARTIN: Most of the Iraqi political groups want them out. They want to expel the Turkish presence and make sure that they do not have this base.

BOWMAN: So far, the Americans have had less luck dealing with the Turkish question in Iraq. The Turks plan on staying. And they're also lining up more troops on the Iraqi border. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.