The new U.S. administration has put on hold a plan proposed by former-President Barack Obama, and backed by the Pentagon, to directly arm the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) (al-Monitor, February 2). The intention is to review other options, with President Donald Trump saying during his election campaign that the ideal situation would be to get Kurds and Turks to work together. This move, however, could be a difficult one, as Turkey considers the YPG as linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and wants to weaken their presence in northern Syria (Rudaw, July 22, 2016).
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, has indicated he wants to re-engage with Turkey, while at the same time calling the Syrian Kurds the United States’ greatest allies in Syria (Daily Sabah, January 11; ARA news, January 14).
Closer cooperation with Russia, the main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is also possible in the fight against Islamic State (IS), although it seems unlikely the administration would want to work with the Syrian government.
Nonetheless, the United States face some tough choices if it is to accelerate its campaign against IS and defeat the group in Raqqa, its de-facto capital in Syria and the base from where it coordinates its attacks abroad.
Unlike in Iraq, where there is a partnership with the Iraqi army, in Syria, U.S. options will likely come down to the choice between backing a non-Syrian Turkish force, or backing a Kurdish group with links to the PKK.
Wrath of Euphrates Option
One option is to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led multi-ethnic force established in October 2015, in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition.
With U.S.-backing, the SDF captured the IS-held town of Manbij on August 13, 2016, in a campaign that lasted over two months. On November 5, with coalition support, it launched the Wrath of Euphrates campaign, aimed at isolating Raqqa and clearing a total of 3,410 square kilometers of territory (ARA news, February 10).
Now, only four kilometers from Raqqa, the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition says SDF forces have almost surrounded the city and are ideally placed for an approach.
There are problems, however. Although according to the coalition, Arabs or Turkmen make up half of the SDF’s estimated 50,000 forces, critics of the SDF stress that it is led by Kurds, who the Syrian opposition and Turkey are opposed to arming.
The main commanders of the Wrath of Euphrates campaign are indeed two Kurdish female fighters — Rojda Felat and Cihan Sheikh — but the SDF insists that 80 percent of the campaign forces are Arabs (Syria Direct, November 7, 2016).
There are also independent Arab groups fighting with the SDF. These groups include Syrian politician Ahmad Jarba’s 3,000 fighters from the Syrian Elite Forces, led by Muhedi Jayila, and the Sanadid Forces made up of more than 4,500 fighters, led Bandar al-Hamadi Daham, as well as smaller Free Syrian Army groups (ARA news, February 6; Rudaw, October 11, 2016).
Nevertheless, the SDF and YPG face a serious manpower shortage, and as a consequence have for the first time included around 500 military conscripts, most of which are Kurds (Hawar News, February 5).
Another serious problem for the coalition ahead of an assault on Raqqa is the lack of armored vehicles and heavy weapons needed for the urban campaign. So far the Turkish opposition has meant the SDF has received only limited weapon supplies. However, the United States said it supplied armored vehicles to the Arabs within the SDF for the first time in January, possibly indicating that a greater level of support can be expected (Rudaw, 31 January).
The Euphrates Shield Option
An alternative would be for the new U.S. administration to work with Turkey.
Turkey launched its Euphrates Shield campaign on August 24, 2016 with the dual goal of tackling IS and preventing the Kurds from linking up their local administrations (Daily Sabah, November 13, 2016). On February 12, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the goal of the campaign is to clear IS from the town of al-Bab, before moving on to Raqqa and Manbij (Daily Sabah, February 12).
Al-Bab has proved more difficult to liberate than expected. Turkey was forced to increase its military presence from 3,000 to 7,000 Turkish soldiers, as well as to build three garrisons inside Syria and deploy its own tanks (Milliyet, 5 January).
The delay has been in part due to the limited effectiveness of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, and the Turkish military’s inexperience fighting IS in built up urban areas. Over 64 Turkish troops were killed, as well as 469 Syrian rebels, in an operation that has lasted six months (Milliyet, February 16).
According to official estimates, there are currently 3,000 fighting with the Turks (Hurriyet, August 24, 2016). Moreover, Turkey is reportedly training 5,000 Syrians, and has sent 450 recruits to Jarabulus, but the number of Turkish soldiers is still greater than the number of rebels (Middle East Eye, January 23; Hurriyet, January 25).
Waiting for the training and recruitment of more Syrian rebels could significantly delay an assault on Raqqa and might require more U.S. boots on the ground. This is not without risks. U.S. Special Forces embedded with the Syrian rebels at the start of the Turkish operation were chased out and threatened with beheading in September (ARA news, September 17, 2016).
While Coalition Special Forces have good relations with the SDF coalition, these do not extend to Islamist rebels. The Turkish rebel coalition includes Salafist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, co-founded by al-Qaeda’s top envoy in Syria, Abu Khaled al-Suri, and Ahrar al-Sharqiya, created by Abu Maria al-Qahtani, who split from al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front but was killed in December 2015 (al-Monitor, August 9, 2016). Al-Qahtani had previously fought against U.S. troops as part of the Jihadist movement in Iraq (al-Akhbar, June 3, 2014; al-Araby, December 15, 2004).
Furthermore, the Turkish-backed FSA are currently about 210 kilometers from Raqqa, while the SDF forces are just 4 kilometers away.
Turkey has proposed to attack Tal Abyad through SDF-held territory. This would bring their forces 20 kilometers from IS, but would also break up the link between the local Kurdish administrations in Hasakah and Kobani (Yeni Safak, February 10). Furthermore, the Syrian army, backed by Iran and Russia, launched an operation on January 15 that could block the Turkish route to Raqqa (ARA news, January 16). This could be also be a reason for the Turks to head to Tal Abyad, since Ankara does not want a conflict with Russian-backed Syrian forces and would rather focus on the YPG and SDF.
It is unlikely Assad, Turkey and the Kurds will be able to work together to defeat IS without some form of a political agreement. While all three profess the intention of fighting IS, for the Syrian government the defeat of Syrian rebels is a priority, for Turkey the aim is to prevent the Kurds gaining territory, and for Syrian Kurds the priority is to achieve recognition for their local administrations.
The United States could attempt to broker some kind of alliance, possibly by backing a Turkish safe zone in Syria, in exchange for guarantees the Kurds will not be allowed to link up their territories. At the same time, the United States could give more political recognition to a local Kurdish-led Syrian federation (excluding northern Aleppo) and demand guarantees that Turkey refrain from attacking Kurdish enclaves, such as Efrin.
The United States could also empower more independent Arab groups within the SDF, such as the forces of former opposition chief Ahmad Jarba, and give the Arabs more autonomy within SDF-held areas in Raqqa and Deir-ar Zour.
Weaker options include using 5,000 to 10,000 Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the SDF, trained by Iraqi Kurdish forces, to serve as a bridge to lessen tensions with Turkey by, for instance, patrolling the Syrian-Turkish borders. It is unlikely, however, that the YPG would accept this, and the Rojava Peshmerga will not fight in Arab-dominated areas such as Raqqa.
Meanwhile, choosing to back Turkish-backed forces over the SDF will lead to delays in an attack on Raqqa that will only serve to strengthen IS.