Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) troops firing a mortar. Getty Images.
The US is delicately trying to balance its long-term strategic relationship with Turkey and its current ad-hoc relationship against ISIS with Syrian Kurdish forces opposed by Ankara as the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launch their offensive against the extremist group in Raqqa, according to observations from analysts.
“The United States needs Turkey as an ally and does not want to force it into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s embrace by supporting the [Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, PYD] too aggressively,” Professor Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told Rudaw English.
This, Landis explained, has seen the US devise a plan to capture Raqqa in two phases.
“The first phase is using the army that it has, the Syrian Democratic Forces which are dominated by Kurds to surround and cut off Raqqa,” Landis explained, “Second is the devising of a plan to take Raqqa that will include Turkey’s preferred Arab militias.”
Landis sees this as a clear attempt to mitigate Turkey’s repeated concerns about an offensive against Raqqa led by the PYD, which essentially created and leads the Arab-Kurdish coalition that is the SDF.
“Of course squaring this circle will not be easy,” Landis added, “But Obama insists on moving quickly and launching the battle for Raqqa before his term is over. He cannot wait four or five months, as the Turks have asked him to do.”
Turkey had proposed that the US exclude the SDF from the Raqqa offensive – since Ankara views the Kurds who lead it as nothing more than members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and therefore a threat to its national security – and instead work with Turkey to capture that city together. However, Washington knows the SDF are better suited and positioned as a ground force to attack and capture Raqqa than the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels Turkey has been using as its proxies in northwestern Syria in its two-and-a-half month old Euphrates Shield operation against ISIS and the PYD.
“Turkey's Arab allies are in no condition to take Raqqa,” Landis stated. “Turkey is finding that the Arab militias are fractious, badly led, badly armed and chaotic. It is learning the lesson that the US learned over the last five years. It is hard to unify or count on Syria's Arab rebels.”
“The SDF is the only force ready to move and capable of taking on the Islamic State,” Landis concluded.
Haid N. Haid, a Syria researcher and Chatham House Associate Fellow also outlined the precarious nature of Washington’s balancing act in this operation.
“The US is trying to avoid confrontation with any of its allies by sending mixed signals,” Haid told Rudaw English. “According to recent statements by Turkish officials, American officials have assured the government of Turkey that, while the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is largely Kurdish fighters, the Kurds will not take on the main role of liberating the Islamic State ‘capital’ of Raqqa, Syria.”
This, Haid explained, might work in the short-term but will have destructive effects in the long-term.
“The US has been able to avoid addressing the elephant in the room, however, this can’t continue forever,” he explained. “The frequency and intensity of military confrontations between Turkish-backed forces and the SDF in Syria is increasing and will likely rise as the groups come into further contact along shared front lines.”
Since the launch of Operation Euphrates, Turkey and its FSA proxies have increasingly clashed with US-backed SDF forces in northwest Syria. None of these clashes have yet escalated into a full-fledged war between them. Washington invariably responds to these incidents by urging both sides to turn their guns away from each other and focus their efforts on defeating ISIS.
Haid also estimates that continued US support of the PYD and SDF will result in Turkey increasing its ties with Moscow and distancing itself from the US and its traditional western allies.
“This US policy is creating secondary conflicts in Syria and creating mistrust with its strategic ally, Turkey, which is pushing the latter further towards Russia,” Haid warned.