As the battle to liberate Mosul gathers steam, the US-led coalition facilitated plans for the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State (IS) with the launch of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates. However, Syria is no Iraq, and the Raqqa offensive adds to the already complex Syrian landscape.
As the operation began, the US-led coalition was seemingly forced to rely on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its best chance of success.
Highlighting this point, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stated, “…the only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion.”
The coalition had to act quickly for many reasons: To capitalise on IS losses in Iraq, to prevent retreated IS forces from remobilising and to prevent IS attacks on European soil.
Kyle Orton, Syria and Middle Eastern analyst with the Henry Jackson Society, told Kurdistan 24 that “the US has prioritised timing in the Raqqa operation – it wants it done as quickly as possible – and the tactical reality there is that the YPG is the only force positioned to do it.”
On a phone call to the US President Barack Obama, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted, “we do not need terrorist organisations like the PYD and YPG in the Raqqa operation. Let us work together to sweep Daesh from Raqqa.”
But in defiance of frequently harsh rhetoric from Ankara owed to the US reliance and support of YPG forces, the US has decided to go with the Kurds again.
The US finds itself in an awkward corner; it has acknowledged the sensitives of Ankara but at the same time does not have a plethora of choices at a critical juncture. Further, it has tried to appease Turkey into playing a role in the Raqqa offensive alongside the Kurds, but Turkey rejected the idea.
Nabeel Khoury, an analyst at Atlantic Council’s Hariri Centre for Middle East At, told Kurdistan 24 that YPG and Ankara could be convinced to work together against a common enemy in IS “with good diplomacy and inducements”. According to Khoury, “the two friends of the U.S. will have to work together, albeit in limited and prescribed roles for this campaign to succeed.”
However, Orton believes “it is highly doubtful that the Turks and the YPG can be convinced to work together. The announcement of the Raqqa operation is itself a means of the YPG gaining a political advantage over Turkey. The interests of Turkey and the YPG simply vary too widely to imagine a convergence that would allow cooperation.”
This begs the question, could the US forgo the Kurds and rely on the Turkish-backed forces?
Any Turkish troops leading a charge into Raqqa would inevitably cut through Kurdish-held territory sparking the possibility of conflict with the Kurds, which would jeopardise Kurdish cooperation with the coalition.
Syrian rebels are too weak without Turkish backing, and in reality, their priority remains the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and aiding their fellow rebels under siege in Aleppo.
At the same time, Raqqa is not a top priority for the YPG. Had they had a choice, Kurds would have preferred to focus on expanding their territory westwards towards Afrin, instead of an Arab-dominated city that they cannot hold.
The Kurds have sought assurances that they are not stabbed in the back by Turkey in sacrificing forces for the Raqqa assault.
The US-led coalition has openly acknowledged that they would prefer an Arab force, as does Turkey, to lead the charge into Raqqa with the Kurdish forces mainly working to seal off the city. However, such a force does not exist and training one will take time.
The US general, Joseph Dunford, acknowledged “we always knew the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa. What we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation”. But it is proving almost impossible, especially since Turkey remains reluctant.
European Ministers such as Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, have warned that the liberation of the Raqqa would have to be done by an “essentially Arab” force to avoid a local backlash.
In essence, the coalition has little choice but to continue to rely on Kurdish forces. However, as YPG seemingly gathers more strategic strength and perhaps more territory, this opens the door to further violence and instability once IS are gone.
First Published: Kurdistan 24