Intel: How the return of the Kurds changes the Syria fight

al-monitor Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province liberation from ISIS, in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 27, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Aboud Hamam.

Nov 12, 2018

After pausing operations last month because of Turkish shelling, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are resuming the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Syria.

Why it matters: To put it simply, if there’s no SDF, there’s no anti-IS campaign. The Syrian Kurds who make up most of the SDF have served as the backbone of the Donald Trump administration’s military push in Syria since early last year.

The long-simmering feud between the Turks and the Syrian Kurds has derailed US plans for a rapid defeat of IS in eastern Syria. The Pentagon announced the beginning of the last phase of Operation Roundup to clear out Syria’s last IS safe havens two months ago. All the while, Syrian Kurds have been in talks with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus to carve out a decentralized enclave after the civil war comes to an end.

Strategic split: Meanwhile, US strategy appears to have also split. President Trump’s March promise to bring home 2,200 US troops “very soon” has faded over the objections of the State Department, the Pentagon and influential US national security adviser John Bolton, who has said he hopes to rid the war-torn country of Iranian proxy forces before the United States leaves.

What’s also unclear is how the United States sees the future of Syria after the war. While the United States backs the UN-led Geneva peace process seeking national elections that could see Assad’s departure, it’s not clear if the administration is comfortable with regime change as the endgame in Syria.

“The whole concept of Geneva was to provide a framework to get Assad out of power,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “The fundamental challenge is that the new administration strategy is regime change without using the phrase 'regime change' because of the bad connotation it has in Iraq.”

What’s next: The SDF must get back to manning the front lines in the fight for Hajin, one of the last IS strongholds in the country, as the group threatens a resurgence in the Syrian countryside.

Know more: Read Jack Detsch’s latest overview of the Defense Department’s infighting over the IS fight.

-Jack Detsch

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