The sudden collapse of ISIS’s grip on the Syrian city of Tabqa and the dam supporting it was the result of a negotiated settlement between US-backed forces and the militant group, two US defense officials told BuzzFeed News.
A third defense official said the withdrawal of roughly 70 ISIS fighters was “unconditional.” ISIS agreed to remove explosives from around the dam and leave its heavy weapons behind, a US official explained. Tabqa sits just west of ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, and has served as an entry point for the capital. Its collapse Wednesday could mark the last major step before the long-anticipated battle for the city, US military officials have said.
Withdrawal talks between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters, began a week ago, collapsed and resumed again earlier this week, leading to the end of a two-month long battle for the city and the dam, the officials said. The end of fighting meant there was no longer a risk that the dam could collapse, which would have created a humanitarian crisis in the area.
A statement put out by Operation Inherent Resolve Wednesday called the end of the battle a “forced withdrawal” but didn’t spell out the details of how it came about. Instead, the release focused on the humanitarian aspect of the withdrawal: “The SDF accepted ISIS's surrender of the city to protect innocent civilians and to protect the [Tabqa] dam infrastructure which hundreds of thousands of Syrians rely on for water, agriculture, and electricity.”
It is unclear how many ISIS fighters died during the battle of Tabqa.
ISIS’s willingness to negotiate its withdrawal from territory once part of its caliphate has some wondering what that portends for the battle for Raqqa. Will ISIS fight to the death for the city, as it has claimed, or will it repeat of fighting only to a certain point, stopping short of a potential full defeat, to use those resources for other ISIS needs?
“ISIS intends to lose the terrain in such a way that the population is more tolerant of ISIS over time,” Jenny Cafarella, a Syria analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “The fall of Raqqa doesn’t mean ISIS is on its heels, especially if ISIS chooses to abandon the city to preserve strength.”
That ISIS could be preserving its military resources to save for more important territory or causes is a real possibility. It, for example, have assessed that the largely Kurdish SDF assigned to liberate Raqqa will not be welcome by Arab-dominated residents once inside, creating a means for the ISIS to return.
The US military appears divided over just what ISIS’s plans are. Some military officials said they anticipate that ISIS will fight for Raqqa to the point of certain inevitable defeat but then negotiate. Still others have said it could be a months-long, block-by-block battle. The military was equally split in the run-up for the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul. At times officials said the group was on the run but later conceded the battle would last for months. It took three months for eastern Mosul to fall and Iraqi forces, backed by US advisers and airstrikes, are now fighting for control of the western half of the city.
Mosul is nearly five times larger than Raqqa, but US military officials in their latest figures have estimated that both cities had nearly the same number of ISIS fighters — around 4,000.
In preparation for the battle for Raqqa, ISIS has spent months building a belt of explosives around the city, US defense officials have said. In addition, it has moved out most of its senior leaders, its key members, and their families from Raqqa into several other ISIS-controlled cities along the Euphrates River Valley, including the Syrian city of Deir ez Zour and the Iraqi cities of al Qaim and Abu Kamal.
ISIS also negotiated its withdrawal from the Syrian city of Manbij last summer after a three-month battle for that city with the SDF, when its defeat was all but certain. Hundreds of US advisers supported the SDF in Tabqa and the coalition launched scores of airstrikes on behalf of the SDF.
Tabqa has been under ISIS control since 2013. As coalition forces began surrounding Raqqa late last year as part of their campaign to isolate the city, ISIS moved some of its top officials and external attack operatives to Tabqa, including Syrian-American Ahmad Abousamra, the editor of ISIS’s Dabiq magazine. Abousamra died near Tabqa in January and dozens of other the ISIS members have died since, US military officials said. Still others have fled Tabqa and moved east to places like Deir Ezzor.