Over a month has passed since the campaign to liberate Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State, was launched and Turkey is still smarting from the US administration’s decision to conduct the operations in tandem with a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkish leaders insist are terrorists. Some view Turkey’s escalating attacks against the group known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in and around the city of Afrin as a calculated effort to weaken them there while the Syrian Kurds devote the bulk of their assets to the Raqqa front.
Turkish bitterness was on full display recently at a press conference at the Turkish Embassy in Washington to mark the first anniversary of the failed July 15 coup. In a keynote address, Turkey’s ambassador, Serdar Kilic, called the decision to liberate Raqqa with the YPG and its Arab allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) “a strategic mistake.” Kilic argued, “The operation to liberate Raqqa could have been done by the United States and Turkey,” thus reviving the debate about the US decision to partner with the Syrian Kurds.
In separate comments to Al-Monitor Pentagon correspondent Jack Detsch, Kilic confirmed earlier reports in the pro-government Turkish media that Turkey offered “tens of thousands of troops” for the US-led campaign against IS. Kilic went on, “Each and every time we made the [troop] proposal, we received the same arguments,” noting that the Pentagon had initially asked for 80,000 troops for the Raqqa operation, more than Turkey believed was required. He did not elaborate on what the Pentagon’s “arguments” were. Kilic then appeared to contradict himself, saying, “We did not give any troops numbers because we did not get to the planning stage.”
Officials familiar with the substance of the tortuous talks over a possible Turkish role suggest there is more to the story. A Turkish official told Al-Monitor before Turkey's Euphrates Shield incursion in Syria last August that Turkey's military leaders were far less enthusiastic about sending large numbers of Turkish troops into battle in Syria and that this reluctance was palpable in their conversations with members of the anti-IS coalition.
In a research paper tracking the US decision to partner with the Kurds, Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford met in February with his Turkish counterpart at the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to discuss a fresh Turkish plan for Raqqa.
Stein recalled that Dunford toured a Turkish training camp during this visit but was not permitted to meet any of the Syrian rebel recruits “reportedly because of their anti-American views.”
The fog of mystery shrouding the Turkish-trained rebels prompted commentators to label it a "unicorn force."
Stein reports the Turkish proposal foresaw Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield Syrian rebels with “a combination of Turkish armored and special operations forces” moving to Raqqa via SDF-held Tell Abyad. Turkey apparently updated this formula to include Arab elements in the SDF, also seen as part of an effort to spin the Arabs away from their Syrian Kurdish partners.
Drawing on multiple interviews with US officials, Stein cited the main flaws of the Turkish plan as a lack of US confidence in the rebel recruits, Turkey’s weak performance during its campaign to capture the IS-held town of al-Bab and the difficulties of assuring a safe corridor for Turkish forces to move from Tell Abyad to Raqqa, given the mutual distrust and hostility between Turkey and the YPG.
Stein’s assessment does not mention, however, what sources privy to the Turkish scheme say was a glaring nonstarter from the Pentagon’s point of view: Turkey wanted for tens of thousands of US troops to take the lead in the fight, effectively consigning their own forces and the rebels to a supporting role.