Objective: Raqqa

Photo: AP/Alexander Kots

Despite its fearsome codename, Operation Wrath of Euphrates, the campaign by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to capture Raqqa from ISIS has progressed in fits and starts since its announcement on November 6th of last year. However, that changed this month, with the operation appearing to have accelerated and SDF forces pushing to within just 50 kilometers of the ISIS capital.

New expressions of U.S. support have bolstered this advance. In January, the Pentagon made its first delivery of armored personnel carriers to SDF forces. Subsequently, roughly 200 U.S. Marines and 200 Army Rangers have deployed to SDF territory this week; and new reports suggest that Trump may raise the cap on U.S. personnel in Syria, deploying as many as 1,000 troops to support and advise the SDF. However, these signals that the Trump administration is ramping up support for the SDF come at a dangerous cost to U.S. relations with Turkey, which views the Kurdish-dominated SDF as an offshoot of its homegrown Kurdish insurgency, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party).

As Trump plans to reveal the final details of his administration’s Syria policy, Turkey prepares for a critical constitutional referendum this April, and the Syrian government moves its own forces closer to SDF forces north of Aleppo and west of Manbij, where does the U.S. stand in the complex battlefield of northern Syria?

For Trump, this question is currently defined by combatting ISIS, which he promised to “bomb the s*** out of” during the presidential campaign. Now, armed with a new plan from the Pentagon outlining options to defeat the group, the president is dispatching the personnel and equipment necessary to overcome the tactical challenge of ejecting dug-in ISIS fighters from Raqqa. However, says Aaron Stein, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, the real “debate in Raqqa is about politics, not tactics.”

Unlike Mosul, where the U.S.-led coalition supports a unified ground force commanded by the central government in Baghdad, the American campaign against ISIS in Syria has only one reliable local ally, which is not a recognized government. That ally is the SDF, a grouping of Syrian rebel groups composed of over 50,000 fighters. Nominally, the SDF is an umbrella coalition of diverse ethno-sectarian opposition groups. However, the vast majority of the SDF’s most effective fighters hail from the YPG (People’s Protection Units), which is the military arm of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party). Battle-hardened and organized under a unified chain of command, the YPG forms the military backbone of the SDF, and the Obama administration increasingly found itself entrusting ground operations against ISIS in Syria to the group.

However, this is problematic for two reasons. First, notes Stein, leaning on the SDF and YPG to lead the ground operation in Raqqa leads to a situation in which the U.S. is relying on a sub-state actor to work with “minimal American oversight to break defenses in an urban area held by another sub-state actor [ISIS] that has proven very good at defending its urban territory [in Mosul].” Even with increased U.S. training, weaponry, and support personnel, the likely result of this dynamic will be a punishing and drawn out battle for Raqqa that will leave many SDF fighters dead.

Second, and more important, Turkey views the PYD as a direct offshoot of its own Kurdish insurgent group, the PKK. Thus, the current status quo of effective PYD control over a vast swathe of territory along the Turkish border with Syria is unacceptable to Ankara. American support for the group, despite its alleged links to the PKK, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization, has become a point of bitter contention between the two NATO allies.

In particular, the SDF’s capture of Manbij from ISIS in August 12 last year was a driving factor in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to launch direct military intervention in Syria – Operation Euphrates Shield – on August 24. This operation is, of course, also designed to battle ISIS. Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” rebels have now captured a large column of territory from the Islamic State, stretching from the Turkish border down to the city of Al Bab in northern Aleppo province. However, the primary purpose of Euphrates Shield has been to both sever any connection between Kurdish territory in northeast Syria and the northwest canton of Afrin, and push the Kurds out of Manbij and off the western bank of the Euphrates.

Indeed, shortly after capturing the city of Al Bab, Euphrates Shield rebels and Turkish troops quickly turned to the east, attacking SDF positions west of Manbij early this month. That offensive was stopped by a surprise decision by the SDF to allow Syrian government and Russian troops to occupy a series of towns along their border with Euphrates Shield territory. Afraid that a Euphrates Shield offensive would draw forces away from the campaign on Raqqa, Washington has also stationed U.S. troops in Manbij. This is ostensibly to ensure that the city is occupied only by non-Kurdish elements of the SDF – an attempt to mollify the Turks – but it also acts as a buffer against a Turkish-backed assault on the city.

Nonetheless, Euphrates Shield forces have continued to shell towns west of Manbij – reportedly killing several Syrian government soldiers on March 8 – and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated the government’s position on March 9 that Manbij must be evacuated of Kurdish fighters. Turkey’s constitutional referendum, which would grant President Erdogan far more expansive executive powers, is scheduled for April 16 and could also hinder any attempt to find common ground on Syria policy.

For these reasons, the Trump administration appears to be waiting to finalize its plans for Raqqa until some sort of agreement can be reached with Ankara, perhaps after the Turkish referendum. This may work for the time being. The SDF needs more time to finish phase three of Operation Wrath of Euphrates by cutting off supply routes between Raqqa and ISIS-controlled Deir al Zour to the east.

However, at the end of the day, the dilemma will remain the same. The SDF and the Kurds are the only feasible force available to take Raqqa without thousands of U.S. boots on the ground, but committing to the Kurds will undermine relations with Turkey, a vital NATO ally. Meanwhile, clashes between Turkish-backed rebels and the SDF near Manbij with Russian, Syrian, and U.S. troops in the middle creates a tinderbox of enormous proportions. For Trump, as for his predecessor, there will be no easy answers in Syria. 

Fritz Lodge is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.