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U.S.-Backed Forces Continue Effort To Drive ISIS From Raqqa


We've reached the commander of U.S. forces confronting ISIS. Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend oversees Americans who are advising U.S. allies in Iraq and Syria. U.S. planes and drones are supporting them. After months of preparation, Syrian forces are attacking the self-proclaimed ISIS capital city, Raqqa. When he came to the phone, General Townsend told us that city is nearly encircled by Syrian ethnic Kurdish fighters and ethnic Arab groups as well.

STEPHEN TOWNSEND: Our Syrian partners have pretty much entirely encircled the city. And in the few places where they have not, the coalition is hunting there to attack any enemy trying to get in or get out, until our partners have a complete encirclement of the city.

INSKEEP: One of the ways out of the city, of course, is getting away across the Euphrates River, which is right there. Can people do that?

TOWNSEND: Well, that's difficult because we've destroyed all the bridges across the river. We hold all of the dam crossings across the river. And we've destroyed just about every boat we can find. So unless you can swim or make a raft, it's really hard to get across the river in any significant numbers.

INSKEEP: Well, then the next question is how you get troops into a densely populated - or what was densely populated - urban area, moving building to building. How did the offensive begin in recent days?

TOWNSEND: Well, they approached the city on foot and in vehicles. And they battled their way into the city. And they have to conduct what we call a breach, which usually means knocking holes - mechanically, with bulldozers, or explosively - knocking holes in obstacles that the enemy has put around the city to slow them down. And they've done that. They have footholds now - better than a foothold on the eastern side and footholds to the north and the west as well.

INSKEEP: How strong is the enemy?

TOWNSEND: Well, we think there are more than a couple of thousand enemy in there. And this is their capital, and they've had better than three years to prepare the defenses of the city.

INSKEEP: And they've done that. You said obstacles - like what kinds of obstacles are in the way of these troops as they move forward?

TOWNSEND: The typical things we see is they take concrete barriers. They also take concrete piping, and they will pile that up in the road and rig it with explosives. We've also seen in Mosul where they take cars and trailers to large trucks, and they fill that with material. And they just jam them across the street. And it makes a pretty formidable obstacle that has to be removed.

INSKEEP: As the troops get more deeply into an urban area, does it become harder and harder to support them with U.S. forces in the air - just because it's a little bit harder to see who's a friend, who's a civilian, who's an enemy and a little bit harder to see what's going on?

TOWNSEND: Well, certainly, fighting in a city is difficult from situational awareness to communications to applying fire support. Imagine that the city streets and the buildings are - they form urban canyons. So imagine trying to support a partner that's on the ground down in the bottom of these urban canyons. It becomes very difficult.

INSKEEP: We're told that civilians in Raqqa have been advised, at least by outside groups, to flee - to get out of there if they can. Did many people flee?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, quite a number have fled. The pre-war population of Raqqa was somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people. And the U.N. says that there's about 160,000 people left. A lot of people have left there. And they are living in the communities all around and in some emerging IDP or refugee camps around the Raqqa area.

INSKEEP: General, I want to fit the Raqqa offensive into the broader strategic picture here a little bit. I want people to know that forces allied with you have been pressing against ISIS in multiple parts of the country - in areas well south of Raqqa, for example - but that as ISIS is pushed back, it's often Syrian government forces - the forces of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies - who are moving in and taking over that territory that you've cleared. What are the implications of that?

TOWNSEND: Well, I think the first thing I would say is the coalition presence in Syria is temporary and focused only on fighting ISIS. We have no desire to fight the Syrian regime or their various partners. We just want to de-escalate with them so we can focus on defeating ISIS. So so far, we've not attacked the regime. We've defended ourselves from several attacks by pro-regime forces.

INSKEEP: You've defended yourselves - you're saying - when Syrian forces, or even Iranian forces, got too close?

TOWNSEND: Well, I'm not really sure what forces they were. I know that we had to shoot down an Iranian-made UAV the other day. I don't know who was operating it, but it was made in Iran.

INSKEEP: A drone.

TOWNSEND: And it fired a missile at our troops - unprovoked. So we have defended ourselves on a number of occasions - about three or four occasions in the last three weeks - plus weeks. Again, we don't desire to fight the regime. We want them to focus on ISIS because that's what we're focused on.

INSKEEP: General Townsend, thanks for taking the time. Really appreciate it.

TOWNSEND: OK, thanks.

INSKEEP: U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who commands the U.S.-backed mission to drive ISIS out of Raqqa, Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.