Challenges surround the anti-ISIS Raqqa operation
OTTAWA - The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has announced the beginning of a campaign that aims to capture Raqqa, the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold and de facto capital.
The SDF General Command said in a statement that the anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition was supporting the operation and it called on world powers to provide needed military equipment.
This announcement came two weeks after US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told NBC News of the need for the Raqqa operation to be conducted simultaneously with the battle for Mosul in Iraq. The same day, a US general said the SDF would be selected to carry out the assault for Raqqa, adding that the decision was made despite Turkish government objections.
Turkey opposes to the SDF because the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YGP), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), constitutes most of the forces in the SDF coalition.
With the Turkish Army’s growing involvement in northern Syria, Ankara has reportedly targeted positions belonging to the SDF as it fights ISIS. There were talks about the participation of Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army groups and the Turkish Army in the Raqqa operation. Ankara has stressed, however, that if the United States wants Turkish coordination, the YPG should not be involved in the operation.
ISIS has lost significant territory since Turkey intervened in northern Syria, although the move strained alliances and increased tensions between Arab and Kurdish groups. The Ankara intervention campaign, as much as it aims to attack ISIS positions, seeks to counter Kurdish expansion west of the Euphrates river. The Kurdish-dominated SDF launching of the Raqqa operation indicates an early resistance to possible aspiration for Turkey to operate militarily east of the river.
ISIS has controlled more than half of the Raqqa governorate since January 2014. Raqqa city, as well as the southern portion of the governorate, are primarily inhabited by Arabs. The notion that a majority Kurdish force will operate in an Arab-populated region is problematic, even for the Kurds.
The Kurdish self-rule authority has an aim for autonomy over what it calls Rojava. The southern Raqqa region, which includes Raqqa city and other parts held by ISIS, is not part of the projected Rojava region. It stretches from the west of the Tigris river along the Turkish border and the northern parts of Raqqa governorate to northern Aleppo and the other end of Syria’s northern border.
In May, the SDF announced an operation to capture the northern countryside of Raqqa. Many Kurdish youths protested and dodged mandatory conscription into YPG ranks, saying a Raqqa battle is not theirs to carry out. One young person told news outlet Syria Direct: “The Kurds have no need for this [Raqqa] battle… Our blood will be spent for a battle that is not ours to fight.”
To some extent, it seems that the YPG intends to trade its help in the Raqqa operation for a US promise to protect Kurdish autonomy in the north, likely a response to Ankara’s intervention in northern Syria.
The SDF announcement of the Raqqa operation coincided with Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford’s meeting with Turkish General Hulusi Akar in Turkey. A statement by the Turkish Army said Akar and Dunford discussed the Raqqa operation. Despite Ankara’s concerns, the United States views the YPG as the only reliable guerrilla force to combat ISIS in Syria.
Brett McGurk, US President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS global coalition, has said there is an effort by the United States to talk with the Syrian opposition about the idea of “force make-up”, which will be needed for the Raqqa operation.
McGurk noted that the operation had to be conducted “in a way that is ultimately stabilising”. His remarks demonstrate mindfulness of the complexities and challenges of liberating Raqqa as well as to the governance and occupation issues that may arise afterward.
However, he said the United States wanted to unify the Syrian parties’ focus towards countering ISIS, something that many Syria analysts and observers have identified as the main problem with the US policy. The United States, through this lens, is only looking at the options of fighting ISIS and disregarding the broader conflict in Syria.
The Mosul operation against ISIS in Iraq will likely continue for months and the controversy surrounding the Raqqa campaign appears to be an obstruction to any effective operation.
At this point, the United States aims to only cut off Raqqa from Mosul and prevent it from being ISIS’s planning centre. The coming weeks will be of a strategic importance and will determine the environment around Raqqa.