- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The U.S. is backing about 30,000 militia fighters in northern Syria who are coiled and ready to strike at the Islamic State. But as they prepare to move on Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital, the Pentagon is heatedly debating which militias should actually enter the Syrian city once the fight reaches its final, and likely most bloody, stages.
On Oct. 25, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the long-anticipated battle for Raqqa would begin in the “next few weeks.” Defense officials have since walked back that timeline, suggesting that while the militias might begin to move toward the city, the forces that will clear and hold Raqqa have yet to be identified, much less trained and equipped.
Speaking to reporters Thursday at the Pentagon, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Col. John Dorrian, noted “there is a degree of isolation and pressure that’s been put on Raqqa” in recent months. But, he said, “right now, I don’t think that all the forces that will be involved in that liberation force for Raqqa have been trained.”
The problem vexing U.S. policymakers and military planners is that ethnic Kurds make up about two-thirds of the 30,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces. That’s a problem not only for Raqqa’s predominantly population of Arabs, who have sparred with Kurds for generations, but also for Turkey, a critical ally who flatly rejects Kurdish participation in the battle.
Dorrian said the U.S. and its Syrian allies are looking for local Arab fighters from the Raqqa area to be the city’s primary holding force. Those fighters haven’t been identified yet, and they’ll have to be trained and equipped before they’re ready for action — all of which pushes the timeline for the taking of Raqqa back months.
According to some, however, time isn’t something the anti-ISIS forces have to spare.
Last month, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, urged for a quick start to the move on Raqqa to disrupt terror plots against the U.S. and Europe. “Our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external operations attacks planning going on, emanating, centralized in Raqqa,” Townsend told reporters.
While veteran Kurdish forces have emerged as the most capable fighting force in northern Syria, and have already ejected ISIS from the towns of Kobani, Manbij, and elsewhere, the fighters who punch their way into Raqqa will be something of an unknown quantity.
In a sign of concern over the growing Kurdish military might on its southern flank, Ankara in August sent a Turkish-backed Syrian Arab militia into northern Syria. Its aim: Both to push ISIS away from Turkey’s border, and place a wedge between two Kurdish-held cantons in the eastern and western parts of northern Syria. The move sought to dent the long-held Kurdish dream of a continuous homeland stretching from Iraq all the way through the entirety of northern Syria.
Turkish military and government officials have warned repeatedly that the plan for their special forces and allied militias in Syria is to first evict Kurds from the ground they had seized, before the Turks and their allies turn their attention to Raqqa.
Turkey has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency for decades, a fight that has killed thousands on both sides. Late last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told President Barack Obama that while Turkey’s military was ready to move against Raqqa, “we don’t need terror organizations” like the Kurds to be involved.
Both the U.S. and Turkey consider the separatist Kurdish PKK a terror organization. But in Syria, Washington is backing YPG militiamen who are loosely connected to the PKK. Turkey sees no difference between the two groups.
“Let’s together oust Daesh from Raqqa,” Erdogan said in televised comments, referring to the Arabic name for ISIS. “We have this power. What are they? They’re a simple terror organization.”
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