The president-elect has promised to use brute force against ISIS. But liberating its capital will involve some very delicate diplomacy.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor for Foreign Policy.
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Donald Trump wants you to know that he plans to annihilate the Islamic State. The president-elect promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” describing himself as the leader who can deliver the crushing blow to the extremist organization.
But Trump will soon be forced to reckon with the realities of a war that is far more complex than he has ever been willing to acknowledge. In the past month, U.S. officials have scrambled to organize an offensive against the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa, warning of intelligence that shows the group is planning terrorist attacks from there against the West. Military planners estimate that the Islamic State, which has already begun strengthening the city’s fortifications, could assemble as many as 10,000 jihadists to defend the city.
It’s inevitable the U.S. military will be involved in the coming battle. On Nov. 24, the Pentagon announced that a U.S. service member had been killed by an improvised explosive device roughly 35 miles northwest of Raqqa – the first American casualty in Syria since Special Operations forces were deployed to Syria in October 2015.
But an ongoing war between America’s two main allies in northern Syria means that liberating Raqqa is going to take more than Washington’s capacity for brute force. The United States has backed an operation by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to retake the city, which announced its offensive on Nov. 6 and has since captured dozens of villages outside Raqqa from the Islamic State. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced that rebels sympathetic to Ankara, who have clashed with the SDF over the past several months, also aim to liberate Raqqa.
If both sides carry out their promises, everyone is liable to lose – except, perhaps, the Islamic State. The dominant force within the SDF, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long guerilla war against the Turkish state. For this reason, Erdogan has denounced the YPG as a terrorist organization, describing U.S. support for its role in Raqqa as “naïve” and repeatedly launching artillery and airstrikes on the Kurdish group following the Turkish military’s intervention in Syria in August.
Both sides acknowledge, and lament, how their own conflict has distracted them from the war against the Islamic State.
“All of what’s happening in the region, the disagreements and the conflicts, are helping daesh restore their strength and organize their fronts,” said Abu Yusuf al-Rai, a journalist for SMART TV based in the areas held by the Turkish-backed rebels.
Defeating the Islamic State, in other words, will involve untying an intractable knot in America’s own coalition. Noah Bonsey, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Syria, said that both Ankara and the SDF are too important to the fight against the Islamic State to abandon completely. At the same time, however, Washington’s decision to throw its weight behind whichever side is better positioned at any given moment to seize territory from the extremist group has led both Ankara and the Kurdish forces to advance as quickly as possible – even at the risk of sparking a conflict with each other.
“Such circumstances incentivize each party to create favorable facts on the ground as quickly as possible,” Bonsey said. “They also raise the risk of overreach, and thus of a cycle of mutual escalation potentially encompassing both sides of the Syria-Turkey border.”
The flashpoint between the Kurdish-led forces and Turkey is the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab, which lies roughly 100 miles west of Raqqa. The two forces have each advanced within several miles of al-Bab, setting up a competition for a slice of land that both sides consider critical for their regional ambitions.
“The Turkish side never fights against daesh,” said Salih Muslim, the co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest political party in the Kurdish areas. “This attack in al-Bab, especially the timing of it, is just to help daesh and nothing else. [SDF forces] are working together against daesh, so they are trying to make them not concentrate on Raqqa, to engage them somewhere else.”
Abu Yusuf al-Rai, meanwhile, expressed frustration that Turkey-backed rebels cannot throw their full military weight into fighting the Islamic State, because they always have to be on guard for an attack by Kurdish forces elsewhere along their front lines. He said the battle to take al-Bab was supposed to be “very easy,” taking only a couple of weeks. “But now with the presence of the Kurdish militias, the battle is being delayed and the planning it taking a lot longer.”
The Obama administration’s diplomats have mediated between the two groups, trying to limit the SDF’s military operations to the east of the Euphrates River and giving Turkey-backed rebels primacy to the west. But these efforts have done little to decrease the animosity between both sides, and have stoked their suspicions of Washington.
The SDF’s leaders have chafed at what they see as U.S. backing for the Turkish offensive. The U.S. military reportedly provided air support to Ankara’s forces in the early days of Turkey’s direct intervention in Syria, while some of the rebel forces involved in the effort have received covert U.S. military support.
Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the SDF’s political wing, told Foreign Policy that U.S. policy was “convoluted.” In her view, Ahmed said, the Obama administration was either “too weak to confront the Turks,” or had reached a secret agreement with Ankara that it would support its ambitions in al-Bab, in exchange for Turkey’s acquiescence to the SDF’s offensive in Raqqa.
The United States, Ahmed said, “is on the one hand fighting terrorism, and on the other hand agreeing with those who fight the forces defeating terrorism.”
Both sets of U.S. allies are currently making advances against the Islamic State. In the past week, Turkish airstrikes helped the rebel groups it favors advance only a mile away from al-Bab. The SDF forces, meanwhile, have advanced roughly 15 miles from Raqqa. Ahmed estimated that it could still take months before the city itself is liberated.
But as the extremist group recedes, both sides’ open hostility toward each other is going to prove impossible for the incoming Trump administration to ignore. It will have to manage the battle in Raqqa — while at the same time making sure that the end of one war doesn’t plunge Syria into another.
Jennifer Cafarella, the Syrian analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, says the challenge for Washington will be establishing limits on both Ankara and the YPG’s ambitions – and more broadly, developing a plan for the future of northern Syria that extends beyond defeating the Islamic State
“Right now, Turkey is imposing the limits on what is possible in northern Syria. The US is trying to acquiesce to Turkish demands without losing the Kurds as an ally, and we’re getting outplayed by both,” she said. “Rather than simply trying to keep pace with the Turks and Kurds as they compete, we need to recognize the influence we do have over both sides and start using it to force them to consider an outcome that is acceptable for all rather than continuing to pursue maximalist goals. We need to lose our ISIS tunnel vision in order for that to be possible, though.”
Trump has spoken positively about both Erdogan and Kurdish forces, but how he plans to reach an accommodation between the rival forces in the region remains a mystery. Without such an agreement, the Syrian war could drag on – and the ensuing political vacuum could give the Islamic State an opportunity to rise again. Bombing the hell out of ISIS, in other words, is the easy part.
NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images