With focus largely on the Iraqi liberation of Mosul, the Islamic State (IS) Syrian stronghold of Raqqa remains the ultimate prize for defeating the group. However, owed to a complicated regional dynamic, the battle for Raqqa is marred by a lack of consensus on the strategy to take the city.
As US President Donald Trump waits for an official review of options from US Defense Secretary James Mattis, due by the end of this month, the military picture against IS in Syria is far from idle.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprised largely of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), continues to make inroads in isolating Raqqa, while coalition warplanes relentlessly pound IS targets. The SDF has been vital in pushing back IS in recent months, but this was only possible with significant US support, much to the dismay of Ankara who remains uneasy at increasing Kurdish territory and military power.
Turkey has presented its own plan to the Trump administration to take Raqqa, while at the same time Russia has offered to coordinate directly in liberating the IS stronghold. Another option on the table to accelerate the offensive is increasing the number of US troops on the ground.
With time of the essence, it remains unclear if the US-led coalition can afford to sideline the Kurdish forces in any Raqqa offensive.
Turkish Defense Minister, Fikri Isik, recently expressed optimism that the “new US administration has a different approach to the issue” of support to the YPG and the main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), who Turkey accuses of been an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). However, there are mixed signals on the ground.
US support for the SDF has continued in recent weeks, including arms shipments. While the official line remains the US does not provide arms to the Kurds, only to Arab elements of the group, the lines remain murky.
Former US president, Barack Obama, left the controversial decision to arm the Kurds, an idea many in his administration supported, to Trump.
It remains unlikely that the Kurds will be put to one side, not because Washington is insensitive to concerns from its Turkish allies, but because the Kurds are the most effective local force and Washington cannot afford to waste time to build a strong local Arab force.
The US is mindful of the ethnic makeup of the force entering the predominantly Arabic city and has tried to calm Turkish fears of Kurds entering Raqqa, by empowering Arab elements of the SDF.
However, this conundrum cannot satisfy all sides.
It is difficult for the coalition to split their policy, such as providing arms to only Arab components of the SDF, as it creates an imbalance that hinders any assault on the city.
Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, who visited a newly established logistical hub near the Turkish border to support US and SDF forces alongside head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel underlined this dilemma, “we can’t just equip parts of this force, we have to equip the entire force.”
Townsend has concluded that a combined Arab-Kurdish force will be needed “because the Kurdish component is the most effective.”
Any gap in local Arab forces can be filled with the US, Turkish or Russian boots on the ground, but none of these will be without drawbacks and risks.
The details around the Turkish-led proposal to enter Raqqa are unclear, but ultimately, even if a sizable force could be mustered, it risks a confrontation with the Kurds and a further complication of the Syrian dynamic.
Turkish entry into Syria was as much to check the growing Kurdish aspirations as to contain the IS threat on its border. Isk has openly stated that once al-Bab is liberated, they would turn their attention towards Manbij.
Any eastern advance into the Kurdish-held territory by Turkey will almost certainly see the Kurds divert their forces from the IS battle.
Underscoring the importance of keeping momentum, Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman for the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, recently stated, “we’re now seeing signs that ISIS fighters, its leaders in Raqqa, are beginning to feel the pressure.” Meanwhile, Votel expressed his concern of “maintaining momentum.”
Ahead of the recommendations to Trump, both Dorrian and Votel stressed they would continue to work with local forces, with Dorrian emphasizing “that fundamental principle isn’t going to change.”
Major General Rupert Jones, a deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, believes “the force that looks most likely capable of conducting the liberation of Raqqa remains the SDF.” While adding, he expects the Arabs and Kurds to work in tandem to liberate the city.
Whatever Trump decides, the socio-political picture is guaranteed to remain as complex as the battle for Raqqa itself.
First Published: Kurdistan 24