ISIS militants parading through the streets of the Syrian city of Raqqa, June 2014. AFP file photo
It's no secret that the $500 million program to train and equip vetted Syrian fighters to combat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria has produced embarrassingly punitive results to date. And it's no surprise that this is seeing to a shift in policy.
It's widely known that the most effective on-the-ground force the United States has been coordinating with against ISIS in Syria has been the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG). When ISIS besieged the city of Kobani for four-and-a-half months beginning in September 2014 the U.S. gave air support to the YPG who were able to repel their attackers. They have been ever since, even when the Kurds connected two of their three Syrian cantons of Jazira and Kobani through Tal Abyad in June 2015.
For Syrian Kurdistan to be a contiguous polity the Kurds still have to join their two joined cantons to the remaining western canton of Afrin. 68-miles of non-Kurdish territory separate Kobani from Afrin, and a lot of that territory is occupied by violent Islamists. The Syrian Kurds would doubtlessly wish to end the division between their communities and also link up with the Kurdish-majority Sheikh Maksoud neighbourhood in the contested-city of Aleppo.
However Turkey has long been adamantly opposed to this. Despite the fact that the Syrian Kurds have a decent track record of cooperating with armed groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and have jointly administered non-Kurdish territory between the cantons of Jazira and Kobani, Turkey is against YPG presence on its frontier with Syria.
The U.S. had long sought to dance around this issue through its aforementioned train-and-equip program. Given its abject failure however, the U.S. has instead decided to divert its resources to closer coordination with the Syrian Kurds and other allied armed groups such as the FSA under the banner of the Euphrates Volcano umbrella group whose goal is routing out ISIS from Raqqa.
They recognize that this battle-hardened fighting-force of approximately 40,000 Kurdish men and women along with their allied Arab fighters are their best option on the ground to whom they have started airdropping weapons and ammunition. Despite Ankara's concerns there is an emergent compromise that might be made.
Even though a link-up of Kobani and Afrin would be an effective way to rout out the Islamist's from those areas the U.S. is assuring Turkey that it does not want that to happen. But it does want the YPG to advance south and force ISIS out of its Raqqa stronghold. If Turkey had to choose between the YPG along its southern frontier or having them advance south against ISIS it would likely, perhaps begrudgingly, consent to the latter. And that seems to be what the U.S. is offering.
Syria's Kurds have expressed interest in coordinating with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers if it will enable them to link-up those aforementioned Kurdish areas. But at the same time working closely with Assad and the Russians and advancing south from Kobani towards Afrin, rather than south towards Raqqa, could alienate the Americans whose close air support has given them a decisive edge over their Islamist opponents to date.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan essentially said the other day that his country can count on its friendship and alliance with the Americans and Ankara is so deeply annoyed with Moscow’s intervention in Syria that Erdogan has threatened to stop purchasing Russian gas of which his country is a major consumer. He knows that Turkey is of strategic importance to the U.S. and would obviously rather they have some sway and influence over the Syrian Kurds rather than see to those Kurds pivot toward Moscow and use the cover of that power to join-up with those aforementioned territories.
Ankara knows that any U.S. support of a Syrian Arab/Kurdish assault on Raqqa would be greatly enhanced by use of their southeastern air bases, such as Incirlik in Turkey. U.S. jets and drones flying close air support could bolster such an offensive.
Such a strategy would certainly not be unprecedented. U.S. aircraft gave air support to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan who, riding on horse back in late 2001, drove the Taliban out of Kabul. They did the same with their NATO allies in Libya when they gave air cover to an offensive of armed groups which sacked Tripoli and overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. They may very well do the same with the YPG/FSA against ISIS in Raqqa in the coming weeks and months.