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The alliance battling the Islamic State (IS) group is “laying the groundwork” for the isolation of Raqqa, the jihadists’ Syrian stronghold, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday after talks with coalition ministers in Paris.
The meeting, hosted by French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, was designed to review the war on the IS group after more than two years of air strikes – and nine days into an offensive to drive the jihadists out of their Iraqi bastion, Mosul.
Besides coordinating their support for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces closing in on Mosul, ministers also attempted to iron out differences over priorities in the campaign.
France, in particular, is keen to tackle the jihadists’ Syrian bastion of Raqqa, where a large number of French foreign fighters in IS group ranks are stationed.
In a joint press conference with Le Drian, Carter signaled that the fight against the jihadist group in Syria would be stepped up, saying he expected the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns to “overlap”.
“We have already begun laying the groundwork for our partners to commence the isolation of Raqqa,” said the US defence chief.
“Today we resolved to follow through with that same sense of urgency and focus on enveloping and collapsing ISIL’s control of Raqqa,” he added, using another acronym for the jihadist group.
Raqqa to be freed by ‘Syrians enabled by us’
Barring Syrian Kurdish forces, the US-led coalition has fewer allies on the ground in Syria, which has been locked in a devastating conflict for over five years.
While the jihadists in Mosul are outnumbered about one to 10, there are insufficient forces currently available to take on the estimated 3,000-4,000 IS group fighters believed to be based in Raqqa, their de-facto capital.
Carter said the coalition would rely on “capable and motivated local forces that we identify and then enable” to wrest the city from the Sunni extremists.
“That is our general strategic approach. We are seeking a lasting defeat of ISIL and a lasting defeat can’t be achieved by outside.
“It can only be achieved by those who live there,” he said, adding: “These will be Syrians enabled by us.”
Hollande calls for vigilance over returning jihadists
Earlier in the day, French President François Hollande urged coalition forces battling the IS group in Mosul to prepare for the aftermath of the city’s fall, including returning fighters.
“The recapture is not an end in itself. We must already anticipate the consequences of the fall of Mosul,” Hollande told defence ministers in Paris.
“What is at stake is the political future of the city, the region and Iraq,” he said, calling for “all ethnic and religious groups” to have a say in the future running of the predominantly Sunni city.
Hollande reiterated French warnings about IS group fighters in Mosul fleeing across the border to Raqqa.
“We must clearly identify them,” he said, urging the ministers to set out “the stages of the next operations” against the IS group, namely retaking Raqqa.
“If Mosul falls, Raqqa will be Daesh’s last bastion,” Hollande added, using another name for the jihadists.
“We must see to it that Daesh is destroyed and eradicated everywhere.”