Report

Trump’s Promises to Defeat ISIS ‘Quickly’ Run Into Syria Buzzsaw

The agonizing decision whether to arm the Kurds to beat ISIS, or defer to Turkey’s sensibilities, is Trump’s first big test.

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces gather near a village north-east of Raqa on February 3, 2017, during their advance on the jihadists' de facto capital in Syria. / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN        (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces gather near a village north-east of Raqa on February 3, 2017, during their advance on the jihadists' de facto capital in Syria. / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A small American outpost deep in Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria could soon become the supply hub for a U.S.-backed push on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. It could also become the flashpoint for a showdown between Washington, which wants to knock Islamic State out of its headquarters in Raqqa, and Turkey, which hates the idea of Kurds storming an Arab city.

Located near the city of Kobani, a dirt airstrip next to the sandbagged base can handle massive C-17 cargo planes loaded with weapons, ammunition, and other equipment earmarked for Syrian Arab forces and — possibly — Kurdish fighters, if U.S. generals coordinating the fight get their way.

The two top U.S. generals in the region took a small group of journalists including a television crew on a tour of the base and a training ground last week, showcasing the local fighters being prepared for combat by American military advisors.

It was no accident that Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top general in Iraq and Syria, are showing off their preparations. The visit underscored the view of top commanders that Syrian Kurdish forces offer the only viable way to oust Islamic State from Raqqa, where the extremists are believed to be plotting terrorist attacks against Western targets. The visit came just days before the Pentagon delivered to President Donald Trump, as requested, a slew of options to defeat ISIS.

As the White House weighs the military options for liberating Raqqa from Islamic State control, Trump faces his first major test as commander in chief, one that will help define the new president’s approach to key allies and adversaries, his relationship with top U.S. commanders, and the future course of the Syrian civil war and the Middle East.

It’s still unclear if he will heed his generals’ advice to start arming the Kurds directly and put them on point for the offensive to take back Raqqa. Turkey has demanded their Kurdish foes in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — who they consider little different from Kurdish terrorists they’ve fought for decades — be excluded from the operation. Instead, they’ve proposed their own plan, which would involve Turkish troops and a largely untested Syrian Arab force armed by Ankara.

Townsend said during the tour of northern Syria that Turkey’s concerns were understandable and must be taken into account. But the U.S. general described Turkey’s strategic choice in stark terms: “Someone is going to have influence over the SDF after Raqqa, and after ISIS is defeated. Who would Ankara wish it to be? They can have their pick: Russia, Iran, the [Syrian] regime, or the United States?” 

Using Kurdish troops to take Raqqa carries plenty of risks. It could enrage Turkey, weakening a key brick in America’s bulwark against Iran, not to mention risking an all-out war between Turks and Kurds in Syria. It could also give the Islamic State a propaganda boost if non-Arabs pour into a Syrian city.

But waiting until diplomatically suitable Arab forces are ready to fight is also risky, especially for a president who thinks in Manichean terms and who favors quick, seemingly decisive action. As long as Raqqa remains in Islamic State hands, Western governments — particularly France — worry about a terrorist attack hatched in the ISIS sanctuary. U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly warned that Islamic State militants continue to plan “external operations” out of Raqqa, and regularly pick up chatter and other information indicating the group is plotting terrorist attacks on U.S. and Western interests.

When Trump took office, he inherited a detailed military blueprint prepared by the Obama administration that called for taking Raqqa with a combination of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters trained and armed by the U.S. military. As recently as January, military planners saw the value in attacking both Raqqa and the ISIS stronghold of Mosul in neighboring Iraq simultaneously, to pile pressure on the Islamic State and build momentum against the extremists.

Obama considered giving the green light to the plan in his final days as president, but chose to hold off in deference to the incoming administration, which had asked the Obama team not to go ahead, former officials said.

Now, the Trump White House — led by new national security advisor H.R. McMaster — is reviewing the whole issue, amid public warnings from Turkey against Syrian Kurds playing any role in the liberation of Raqqa.

“The view is — taking it right is more important than taking it quickly,” said one Republican congressional staffer. “This judgment is bubbling up that it might be better to pause.”

The SDF includes Syrian Kurdish and Arab components, but U.S. military advisors and top Pentagon leadership consider the Kurdish troops to be more effective and more experienced. For the Raqqa offensive to proceed, the Trump administration would need to formally authorize logistical and other support for the Syrian Kurdish forces — a move that would infuriate America’s NATO ally, Turkey.

From Ankara’s perspective, the 27,000 Kurds in the SDF are little more than an arm of the PKK, a terrorist group that has fought a bloody separatist campaign in southern Turkey for decades. While Washington — like the European Union — recognizes the PKK as a terrorist organization, and nods to historical links between that group and Syrian Kurds, U.S. policy is that armed Syrian Kurds aren’t a terror group.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has for months warned that the SDF was in his crosshairs. After pushing the Islamic State out of the northern Syrian city of al-Bab late last month, “Turkey’s new target in Syria is Manbij,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

“Manbij is a city that belongs to the Arabs, and the SDF also must not be in Raqqa,” Erdogan said.

Last fall, Ankara pushed several thousand rebels along with Turkish commandos into northern Syria to keep Kurdish fighters from forming an unbroken Kurdish area of influence across Turkey’s entire southern border. And skirmishes between Turkish-backed rebels and Kurds around Manbij over the past several days — close to where U.S. forces are training Syrian rebels — point to more trouble ahead.

In a move that further inflamed tensions with Turkey, one local group that has close ties to the U.S., the Manbij Military Council, handed several villages over to Syrian government units this week in an effort to erect a buffer between them and the Turkish forces.

Though the Kurds make up more than half of the 50,000-strong SDF, American advisors say the Arab element is growing rapidly, with 4,000 Arab fighters completing U.S. training over the past several months. French and Jordanian commandos are also operating in northern Syria as part of the training program, one American officer on the ground in Syria told Foreign Policy.

To placate Turkey, options being floated by U.S. commanders include providing the SDF equipment only on a temporary basis, or limiting their supply of ammunition on a need-to-have basis.

Sidelining the Kurds may not be the best military solution, but it might be the smartest move in terms of the bigger picture of regional security.

James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Iraq whose opinion carries weight among Defense Department officials, said it would be a mistake to adopt a battle plan that ignored Turkey, as Washington cannot afford to lose Ankara as a partner in countering Iran’s influence in the region and addressing the grievances of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria.

“It’s very important that we just not defeat ISIS but that we handle those broader challenges, ensuring the Iranians don’t run amok,” said Jeffrey, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The former diplomat recommended the United States postpone any assault on Raqqa until after Turkey holds its constitutional referendum on April 16, as Erdogan cannot be seen at home to strike any compromise with the Kurds during the political campaign.

But waiting to launch an offensive carries the risk that the SDF will become distracted by other priorities or lose faith in their American patrons. And opting for a Turkey-led operation could backfire if the Arab fighters that Ankara has bankrolled fail to perform as promised.

Turkey’s plan has other blemishes. To establish a logistical supply line from its force near the border south toward Raqqa, Turkey would have to reach an agreement with the Syrian Kurds, or else have to fight their way through Kurdish-held areas to get to Raqqa.

And when Turkey presented its plans for the Raqqa assault to Washington, military officers and Defense Department officials came away unimpressed.That’s not something that passed the rigor of the Pentagon,” a former Obama administration official told FP.

There is one other, literally “America First” option, beyond relying solely on quickly-trained U.S-backed Kurds and Arabs, or Turkish-backed Arabs. Until now, U.S. military commanders have ruled out anything beyond some artillery support and an advisory role for U.S. special operations forces. But some officials and administration advisors are open to at least considering the idea of using conventional forces in a full-fledged combat role.

Under one possible scenario, American armored units — similar to the approach used in Fallujah in 2004 during the U.S. occupation of Iraq — could help seize the city before later transferring control to Syrian Arab forces.

In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, Jeffrey raised the possibility of a several thousand-strong U.S. armored contingent punching through to Raqqa.
Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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