State Department Denies U.S.-Russia Effort to Liberate Raqqa

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

The State Department has denied reports that discussions are ongoing with Russia on a mission to liberate Raqqa, Syria, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State’s Caliphate.

“At least that I’m aware of, no plans militarily to divvy up the labor in the same with those geographical parameters as suggested by [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov,” explained State Department spokesman John Kirby. “I’ve seen no indication that it will [take place].”

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian television that the Kremlin “is ready” to liberate Raqqa with the U.S.-led coalition.

“We are ready to coordinate our actions with the Americans, because Raqqa is in the eastern part of Syria, and the American coalition is mainly … acting there,” he said, adding:

Perhaps, this is no secret, if I say that at some stage the Americans suggested performing a “division of labor”: the Russian Air Forces should concentrate on the liberation of Palmyra, and the American coalition with Russian support will focus on the liberation of Raqqa.

Russia and the U.S.-led coalition have not coordinated any attacks since Russian airstrikes began in late September. The U.S. does not want to aid Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which Russia supports.

The Islamic state has retreated towards Raqqa as the Syrian forces gain ground in Aleppo. Two weeks ago, the Islamic State “cut the Aleppo supply line” and captured Khanasser from the Syrian Army. But the army managed to grab it back with the help of Russian forces and eliminated many Islamic State fighters.

Last month, media outlets reported that Syrian forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad had moved closer to Raqqa. Russia supports them from the air; forces from Iran and Hezbollah provide troops on the ground.

“It is an indication of the direction of coming operations towards Raqqa,” explained an anonymous source. “In general, the Raqqa front is open … starting in the direction of the Tabqa area.”

Russia has continued airstrikes around Palmyra, a UNESCO Heritage site that Islamic State captured in 2015. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the Russians hit the city with “more than 200 shells” over the course of 80 airstrikes.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his government will withdraw some of its military from Syria.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the beginning the peace process,” explained Putin. “I hope today’s decision will be a good signal to all the conflicting sides. I hope this will significantly increase the level of confidence of all participants of the settlement process in Syria and will contribute to the solution of the Syrian issue through peaceful means.”

They will begin the pullout on Tuesday.

“I am therefore ordering the defence minister, from tomorrow, to start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingent from the Syrian Arab Republic,” he added.