Foreign Policy visits a U.S. base where local forces are being trained to take back Raqqa. But the ethnic politics are daunting.
- 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.
SANAA, Syria — It was graduation day for several dozen newly trained fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, and as they broke formation, they hurried to a white pickup truck that arrived with their graduation gift from their American trainers: new AK-47 rifles, ammunition, uniforms, and boots.
The class had just finished a two-week training course run by U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers and SDF trainers in the hollowed-out shell of this tiny village in northern Syria, which was pulverized during a fierce fight last year between the SDF and retreating Islamic State fighters.
The militiamen — until recently students, laborers, and family men — quickly grabbed their new rifles and embraced their new job, forced on them by forces beyond their control. Several of them said they would gladly go back to their civilian lives once the fighting stopped, but that the Islamic State and Turkey were threats they couldn’t ignore.
For the Americans, providing weapons and basic combat skills to the young fighters is the easy part of their mission. The ethnic politics of arming local forces presents a more daunting challenge.
The U.S. military maintains a light footprint in northern Syria, with small teams operating four training centers to funnel Kurdish and Arab forces into the fight for the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, and to protect gains the Kurds have made in the north around the nearby city of Manbij.
Other U.S. forces are closer to the fight in Raqqa, accompanying the SDF in their move on the city, and helping call in airstrikes on Islamic State positions. Overall there are about 500 U.S. troops in the country.
Northeast of the training range near the city of Kobani on the Turkish border, U.S. forces have constructed a hardened landing strip for C-130 and C-17 cargo planes full of equipment for the Syrian Arab forces and to supply U.S. troops operating throughout the north. The head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend, visited the site on Friday along with a few reporters for a first-hand look.
The site promises to be a key hub in the fight to retake Raqqa and in the continuing effort to build up the SDF, which is growing week by week as U.S. soldiers move them through the training program. As of now, the Arab part of the SDF — the Syrian Arab Coalition — numbers about 23,000 fighters, while the battle-hardened Kurdish contingent makes up the remaining 27,000.
That imbalance is an issue in the Raqqa campaign, and in the U.S. debate whether to supply arms to the Kurds, or only to the Syrian Arabs. The Trump administration has yet to announce a decision on whether it will provide weapons to the Kurdish forces, and how it comes down the issue could shape the course of the war and Washington’s relations with Ankara. One of several options on the table is increasing the number of U.S. troops in Syria, perhaps even with conventional forces that could provide more help in capturing Raqqa.
American commanders here estimate about 12,000 to 15,000 troops are needed to take the Islamic State stronghold, with somewhere between 50 to 80 percent of that force being Arab. The ethnic makeup of the force is critical, as Raqqa is an Arab city and the U.S. is trying to allay Turkish concerns over supporting a Kurdish group that Ankara considers to be affiliated with the PKK terrorist group that has waged a bloody campaign in Turkey for decades.
In the push on Raqqa, the SDF is “going to need additional combat power,” said Gen. Townsend while visiting a small U.S. outpost near the Syrian training center on Friday. And while the force faces “the problem of supply, the problem of training, and problems of positioning the force” before the assault on Raqqa can begin, those things can be worked out fairly rapidly, “if we get the authorities we need” from Washington.
But from there, the issues begin to stack up. The Arab fighters are generally the newer, less experienced part of the force, and Townsend said the conclusion he and other military officials have drawn is that both Arabs and Kurds will be required to take Raqqa, “because the Kurdish component is the most effective.”
That assessment is a point of contention with Turkey, which already bristles at the American alliance with the Kurds.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to hit the Kurds in northern Syria, and in August launched Operation Euphrates Shield. The stated purpose of that operation was to push the Islamic State from Turkey’s border, but it also was widely seen as a way to check Kurdish power.
Townsend, however, said he believes “we can’t just equip parts of this force, we have to equip the entire force,” in order to give it the best chance of success.
Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said this week that Ankara’s forces would likely pivot to attack Manbij next, unless the U.S. can guarantee that Kurdish forces have left. One American Special Forces soldier said that the Americans walked Turkish officials through the town once to show that Kurdish forces had left, but Ankara has ignored subsequent invitations.
Townsend sounded a more cautious note. He said the Americans and Turks have agreed to “examine other options” apart from using the Kurds in Raqqa. He said that no decisions have been made, either in the talks or in Washington as to the larger strategy moving forward.
Gen. Votel is also looking for ways to avoid conflict with Turkey, which he praised as a valuable NATO ally. But, the SDF as a whole needs anti-tank weapons to defeat Islamic State suicide car bombers, mortars, and armored vehicles before the full Raqqa operation kicks off. If given that kind of fire power, it would “take weeks, not months,” to bring it all in via the new logistics hub in the north, he said.
Abu Amjed, a 38-year-old former pharmacist who has become the leader of the Manbij Military Council which supplies fighters to the U.S. training program and policies the city, said that Turkish-backed militias regularly fire on his checkpoints. But he told his forces not to risk provocation by firing back. One of the U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers training the Kurds told Foreign Policy that Amjed’s forces “actually do a great job in holding back and not taking the bait.”
In comparison to the Islamic State, Amjed said, “the bigger threat is Turkey.”
Turkey’s role loomed large over the rank and file militia members, as well. The Turks and ISIS “are the same, the way we view them,” one fighter said. “But we haven’t had an order to fight” Turkish forces and their allies.
Another young man, who dropped out of college to join up, added, “ISIS left us no choice but to fight them,” while sounding a more forward-leaning outlook. “We will defeat them in Manbij and then go to al-Bab,” a city the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army claim to have finally liberated this week after weeks of heavy fighting.
Over a lunch of lamb, vegetables, and flatbread served by Manbij civic leaders, they blamed Turkey for blocking the shipment of medicine and cutting the water flowing through a key river that supplies energy for the Manbij power supply. Ibrahim Kaftan, an engineer, said “we would like Turkey to leave us alone.”
Photo Credit: U.S. Central Command