BEIRUT // The US-backed push to oust ISIL from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa is only days old, but on Tuesday there were already signs that establishing trust among the different forces involved will prove difficult.
The plan, as the United States tells it, involves both a Kurdish-dominated coalition of Syrian factions and Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebels — two groups that are at war with ISIL, but also at war with one another.
Turkey considers the YPG, the Kurdish group at the centre of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara is at war with at home.
But the SDF and Turkey do not seem to be on the same page.
According to the SDF, the US has guaranteed them that Turkey and its rebel militia proxies will be excluded from the Raqqa offensive, while Ankara, which intervened militarily in Syria in August, says it has been told that the Kurdish-dominated coalition will only fight around the city and not enter or occupy it.
“We hope that this will be the case and we expect that our partners keep their promises,” Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said on Tuesday.
But earning Turkey’s trust — and keeping the SDF’s — will be difficult for Washington.
Speaking on Tuesday to confirm that Turkey would work with the US to retake Raqqa, Mr Cavusoglu also voiced major concerns about Washington’s support for the YPG. He reiterated claims that weapons given to the YPG by the US were ending up in the hands of PKK rebels in Turkey and, in a reference to ISIL and the YPG, warned: “We should not have people make a choice between two devils.”
On Monday, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Gen Joe Dunford, went to Ankara to calm Turkish nerves over the Raqqa offensive. He quickly contradicted claims by the SDF that there would be no Turkish involvement in the operation.
“The coalition and Turkey will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa,” Gen Dunford said. “We always knew that the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding or governing Raqqa ... what we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation.”
This “right mix”, Gen Dunford said, is one that is predominantly Sunni Arab, not Kurdish. Turkey, he added, will help the US identify forces to enter and ultimately occupy Raqqa. He promised that the anti-ISIL coalition will not move to capture Raqqa without incorporating Ankara into its plans.
With ISIL fighting to keep hold of Mosul, over the border in Iraq, the US has been eager to get its allies moving on Raqqa to increase pressure on the extremists. Taking both Mosul and Raqqa would deprive ISIL of its most prized possessions and likely serve a death blow to the group as it exists today. But now that plans are in motion to attack Raqqa, it appears the offensive could take some time if it is to involve Turkey as the US intends.
Turkish-backed Syrian forces are currently positioned far from Raqqa — nearly 200 kilometres away along the Turkish border north of Aleppo. And, given that the Turkish-backed rebels and SDF are enemies, it is unlikely the SDF will allow them to pass through its territory. This means they will have to take a circuitous route to reach Raqqa, which will involve more confrontations with ISIL along the way.
Another potential option for Turkish-backed forces, according to Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is to launch a new incursion from Turkey into Syria, north of Raqqa. This would provide the forces with a more direct route and allow them to attack Raqqa quickly but would also likely put them in direct confrontation with the SDF.
“Given his long-standing desire to prevent a united Kurdish zone in Syria, Erdogan may calculate that a sudden attack is a risk worth taking, especially if America is preoccupied by the post-election transition,” Mr Balanche wrote in an analysis published on the institute’s website on Monday. “In his view, winning Washington’s forgiveness after the fact may be easier than securing US permission beforehand.”
But if the SDF and Turkish-backed rebels end up locked in more fierce battles with one another instead of with ISIL, it could significantly derail plans to retake Raqqa.
The US seems increasingly aware that retaking Raqqa could be a long-term endeavour.
“There is no available force capable of taking Raqqa in the near future,” one US official told Reuters on Monday.
“For us, the linchpin here is for the Turks to exercise enough restraint [and] get them to resist the temptation to do anything that would spark a conflict that might get out of control,” another official added.
“It’s a hand-holding exercise on both sides.”
* With additional reporting from Reuters and Associated Press