Trump's generals wonder: What comes after Raqqa?

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Article Summary
A senior US official says Turkish bombing of Syrian Kurdish forces is adding a new level of complexity to US efforts to defeat the Islamic State and retake Raqqa.

WASHINGTON — A senior US counterterrorism official says there is “no magic bullet” to resolve the growing rift between the United States and Turkey over the US use of Syrian Kurdish forces to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State.

Retired Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, the deputy special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, spoke April 26 at a forum organized by the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, a day after Turkey bombed Kurdish fighters in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq and in northeastern Syria. At about the same time Wolff spoke, Turks skirmished with Kurds in Hatay on the Turkish-Syrian border.

The US-led coalition is counting on the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces to retake Raqqa, the capital of IS' shrinking caliphate. However, that force is dominated by members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both Turkey and the United States regard as a terrorist group.

Turkey infuriated the Trump administration by failing to coordinate its latest attacks with the United States and giving only the most minimal of warning. US forces were only 6 miles away from the bombing in Sinjar, which killed about 20 members of the YPG and a half dozen peshmerga, forces of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government that is at odds with the PKK and nominally allied with Turkey.

Asked by Al-Monitor how the United States could successfully carry out its mission of defeating IS and liberating Raqqa given the higher priority Turkey is placing on hitting the YPG and the PKK, Wolff said, “There's nothing we manage more intensely than Turkey. We'll continue to manage it and work with the Turks on every possible level."

He added, “That doesn't mean these irritants don't flare up. There's no magic bullet” to resolve the contradictions between the US strategy of relying on the YPG to retake Raqqa and the Turkish opposition to the YPG as an arm of the PKK.

Wolff insisted that the Syrian Democratic Forces actually include more Sunni Arabs than Kurds and put the proportion at three-quarters Sunni Arab and only one-quarter YPG. Others have disputed these numbers and say that the force remains dominated by Kurds, who have proven to be the most reliable local partners against IS, and that the Sunni members are largely Bedouin and do not represent settled Syrian Sunni tribes.

Despite Turkish opposition to the YPG, Wolff made clear that no other force has emerged on a timeline commensurate with the US desire to retake Raqqa and end its role as a hub for plotting terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States.

“We believe this is the only viable effort to liberate Raqqa,” Wolff said of the current US strategy, which closely mirrors that of the Obama administration. “How long can you allow [IS] and its external operations to wait? We have a sense of urgency here.”

Repeatedly questioned about US goals for ending the civil war in Syria, Wolff said the Trump administration understands the complexity of the conflict but is focusing on Raqqa and eliminating IS from the Euphrates Valley in both Syria and Iraq.

He said the administration had a plan for building “the right consensus with locals” and installing a new local government for Raqqa that could win Sunni allegiance. But he suggested that the Trump administration so far has no strategy beyond that, saying that deeper US involvement would require an investment that Washington is not yet prepared to make.

“You have to decide if that sort of conflict is in our national interest,” he said. “This administration is trying to work their way through that. It’s easy to say 'do it all' and then someone presents you with the bill.”

The latest dispute with Turkey follows President Donald Trump’s congratulatory phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following Erdogan’s narrow victory in a referendum on substantially increasing the powers of the Turkish president. The attacks raise more questions about Turkey’s reliability as a partner against IS, and whether the United States and Turkey can work together effectively to try to end the Syrian civil war.

Other speakers at the event described a bleak picture in which al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters increasingly dominate other forces opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in effect reinforcing the US decision to rely on the Kurds.

“Al-Qaeda now dominates Idlib,” said Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute. He said that is also true of rebel forces north of Aleppo and in Hama.

The situation is different in southern Syria, Lister said, where there are some 30,000 members of the Free Syria Army who are supported by Jordan and US Special Forces.

Six years into the Syrian conflict, the overall picture is one of extreme fragmentation and population displacement, with a half million people killed and some 6 million refugees in neighboring states and in Europe.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict or at least institute durable local cease-fires are floundering, said Robert Ford, the last US ambassador in Damascus. He called Turkish intervention in Syria “an unmitigated disaster” and suggested that Ankara’s main priority now was simply to maintain a wedge between YPG-controlled enclaves in Afrin, in northwestern Syria, and the self-styled Kurdish state of Rojava to the east.

“At this point, the Turks are trying to cut their losses,” Ford said. “They can’t get to Raqqa before the YPG can.” As for getting rid of Assad, once Erdogan’s No. 1 goal, that’s fallen on Turkey’s priority list, Ford said.

Found in: al-qaeda, raqqa, is, pkk, ypg, kurds, donald trump, rojava

Barbara Slavin is a columnist for Al-Monitor and director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. On Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1

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