Now that the battle for Mosul is under way in Iraq, U.S. military planners are also training their sights on the ISIS capital of Raqqa, in Syria.
Any effort to isolate Raqqa will depend heavily on the Syrian Kurds, whose fighters are being helped by U.S. Special Forces and air power. The Syrian Kurds, like their ethnic cousins in Iraq, have been the most effective fighters against ISIS.
“We are ready,” says Saleh Muslim, co-chair of the Syrian Kurds’ main PYD political party, whom I interviewed by phone. However, Turkey, another U.S. ally, has sent troops into northern Syria to stop the Kurds. Ankara has pledged to prevent them from joining a Raqqa offensive.
It seems that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would rather fight the Kurds than defeat the Islamic State.
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So the battle to destroy the “caliphate” will depend on whether Washington, D.C., will stand by its Syrian Kurdish allies — and can convince the Turks not to go bonkers. Otherwise, for the foreseeable future, Raqqa will remain a haven for the Islamic State, where it can plan attacks on the West.
To understand why these two U.S. allies are at each other’s throats, and how the United States is involved, let me offer some background.
In March, I crossed the Tigris River in a motorboat from Northern Iraq (home to Iraq’s Kurds) to northern Syria, where the Syrian Kurds control large swaths of land. Long suppressed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Kurds took advantage of the chaotic civil war to establish a de facto government in three cantons. They have proposed that their region, which they call Rojava, should become one of five federal states in a future Syria. This would give the main warring factions — including the Assad regime — some turf of their own.
Unfortunately, no one — not even the U.S. — has adopted this best-of-the-bad-options idea (although the Russians have apparently expressed interest). Turkey has been especially neuralgic, fearing Syrian Kurds might inspire Turkish Kurds.
The Turks denounce the Kurdish PYD party and militias as “terrorists” because of their links to Turkey’s banned PKK Kurdish terrorist movement. But the Syrian Kurds, despite those past links, have no interest in fighting Turkey. They are focused on developing their federal state, which would be economically dependent on Turkey next door.
Moreover, until recently, Erdogan was negotiating with the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to end the conflict with his own Kurds. At that time, Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim was able to travel freely to Ankara and speak with Turkish counterparts.
Then, for domestic political reasons (aided by PKK missteps), Erdogan restarted the fight with Turkey’s Kurdish rebels, which has exploded into an ugly civil war that is destroying the southeast of his country.
Erdogan has now expanded that war. In late August, Turkey sent troops across its border into Syria, supposedly to help some Syrian Sunni militias retake territory from the Islamic State.
That was a cover story. Although it may help retake some towns, Turkey’s real goal is to prevent the Kurds from linking up the three cantons of Rojava, which are separated by a stretch of Islamic State-held land. Indeed, Turkish planes bombed fighters from the Kurds’ YPG militia, who were trying to close that territorial gap.
Which brings us to the American role: When it comes to isolating Raqqa, are we backing the Turks or the Kurds? So far, the administration seems to have hoped it could “deconflict” its two allies. The CIA has helped militias linked with Turkey. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces are recruiting local Sunni villagers to join the Kurds in a militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Washington has tried to calm Erdogan’s Kurdophobia. At Turkey’s behest, the U.S. even pressed the Kurds to pull back from the key town of Manjib, which they had retaken from the Islamic State at the cost of hundreds of casualties.
But deconfliction clearly hasn’t worked.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter traveled Friday to Ankara, where he talked about retaking Raqqa and praised Turkish forces. Yet on Monday, Turkey’s foreign minister insisted that Syrian Kurdish fighters should be excluded from the battle.
That is a nonstarter.
As Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Wednesday, the only force capable of isolating Raqqa in the near term is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the Kurds are the backbone.
Of course, Townsend was speaking from the field where realities can’t be avoided. Back at the Pentagon, those realities may not seem so clear.
I asked Saleh Muslim what impact the Turks’ invasion of Syria would have on the effort to isolate Raqqa. “They are destroying the possibility of an offensive against Raqqa,” he said bluntly.
“The Kurds are engaged in fighting with ISIS,” he went on. “But we are afraid to be hit from the back (by the Turks) if we move toward Raqqa.”
Here’s the bottom line: Unless D.C. can prevent Erdogan from attacking the Syrian Kurds, the Raqqa offensive won’t get off the ground.