A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Ain Issa, 50km north of Raqqa, on Sunday. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
In light of the launch of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive against the ISIS-occupied city of Raqqa a ceasefire needs to be drafted to ensure that intermittent clashes between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces in Syria’s northwestern border region do not escalate and risk compromising this nascent offensive.
Named Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, the initial phase of this offensive will see the Arab-Kurdish force seal off Raqqa before launching an assault into the city against the ISIS militants there. US officials have already said that this will be a slow endeavor which will take at least a few months. Raqqa is unlikely to be captured by the time US President Barack Obama leaves office in January.
While the US is supporting this offensive with airstrikes, it is wary of having a Kurdish-majority force enter a Sunni Arab-majority city with a pre-war population of about 220,000 people, fearing that will result in an ethnic conflict. Of the 30,000 troops the SDF say they have advancing on Raqqa, an estimated 20,000 are Kurdish. The US wants more Arab fighters participating in this offensive before the SDF enter Raqqa.
The current phase of the Mosul operation – which has seen the Iraqi Army enter the city for the first time since its humiliating retreat in June 2014 – began on October 17. The Mosul offensive officially began on March 24 and got off to a very slow start with the Iraqi Army taking weeks to liberate ISIS-held villages near the Makhmour Front. The early stages of the SDF offensive into Raqqa may be launched at a similar speed, giving the SDF at least a few months to train more Arab fighters to participate in this operation.
Turkey’s reaction to this campaign was always going to be an important factor. Already the US has sought to reassure its long-time NATO partner – which had been insisting that Raqqa could be captured by a joint Ankara-Washington military operation that excludes the SDF – that this operation will not harm them or their interests.
The SDF have previously said their main fear of launching any offensive against Raqqa is that they will be shot in the back by Ankara. Washington consequently needs to use its influence over both parties to broker an ad-hoc ceasefire between them to give this SDF operation a chance to succeed.
In a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar on Sunday the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford discussed, among other things, the continued presence of Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces in Manbij, a matter of great concern to Ankara.
The Turks did not oppose the SDF offensive against Manbij when it began in late May. They wanted mostly Arab members of the SDF to lead the operation and only agreed to allow a small supporting YPG force to go along when the US insisted they were essential. Ankara was promised by the Americans that the YPG would withdraw from Manbij back to the east side of the Euphrates River when ISIS was forced out of Manbij. They still have not done so, even though Manbij was completely cleared of ISIS militants in mid-August.
Turkey has since bombed the YPG and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels they are backing in northwestern Syria and has also clashed with these forces. Ankara is against the SDF advancing any further to capture ISIS-occupied al-Bab (which is 50 kilometers west of Manbij) and has threatened to take firmer action against them if they do so. In light of this tense situation an SDF offensive against Raqqa could be potentially a setback or fatally compromised if a full-fledged conflict breaks out between Turkey and the SDF/YPG in northwest Syria in the near future.
This is why it is incumbent upon Washington to negotiate some kind of a ceasefire settlement between the two sides to ensure SDF momentum against Raqqa, no matter how initially slow, is not jeopardized.
Presently the US is insisting that more Arab fighters join the ranks of the SDF before the final phase of the Raqqa operation, the capture of the city itself. Turkey would likely settle for a capture of Raqqa by non-YPG Arab elements of the SDF. This, coupled with the fact that the US is taking into account their concerns over the continued YPG presence in Manbij, indicates there are indeed already some grounds to forge a ceasefire whose terms are acceptable to both sides.