By John Holland-McCowan, Research Fellow, ICSR
As referenced in our most recent Insight, “Limits on the Iraqi Kurds’ Impact on the Battle for Mosul”, the US-led anti-ISIS coalition is primarily focused on the Mosul offensive. Nevertheless, on Sunday, November 6, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced operation ‘Euphrates Anger’ to liberate Raqqa from ISIS control. SDF spokesmen stated that 30,000 troops would first aim to surround and isolate Raqqa before seeking to recapture the city itself. Yet how realistic are the Syrian Kurdish led SDF’s chances of retaking ISIS’s defacto capital?
The Syrian Kurds have increasingly been viewed as indispensable allied ground troops for the anti-ISIS coalition since their resounding victory over ISIS in Kobane in January 2015. The United States has provided arms, supplies, and special force advisors to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG) forces as well as the YPG-led SDF. The Syrian Kurds have subsequently recaptured more than 17,000 square kilometers of ISIS territory in northeastern Syria, have retaken Manbij and its surrounding area west of the Euphrates, and have pushed ISIS back to within 30 km of Raqqa. Yet despite their successes, the Syrian Kurds are unlikely liberators of the city due to two major obstacles: the opposition of Turkey and the lack of effective Arab fighting forces within the SDF.
The Turkish Factor
While the US government has backed operation ‘Euphrates Anger’, its NATO ally Turkey’s hostility towards the Syrian Kurds makes a Kurdish led liberation of Raqqa implausible. Turkey’s resistance to the advances of the YPG and SDF forces is rooted in its view that they, and their associated political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are fronts for the terrorist-labeled Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey. Ankara fears that if an autonomous Kurdish region develops under PYD control across its border, it would provide an unwelcome precedent for its own Kurdish population and would serve as a safe haven for PKK militants in the future.
The PKK’s terrorist designation has challenged the international community’s ability to support its PYD partner and their affiliated armed forces. Nevertheless, the Obama administration has relied heavily on the PYD to fight ISIS in Syria by claiming that while the PYD shares ideological affinities with the PKK, there is no institutional relationship between them. The American distinction between these two groups is diametrically opposed to Ankara’s assessment.
On August 24, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that Turkish forces, along with their allied Syrian opposition fighters, had launched ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ to drive out terrorists in northern Syria, including ISIS fighters and Kurdish militants. In reality, it appears that the intervention was principally triggered by the SDF’s advance west of the Euphrates River. The US backed SDF forces had swiftly liberated Manbij and were advancing north towards the ISIS controlled Turkish border town of Jarabulus on the eve of the Turkish operation. Ankara had repeatedly stated that any YPG or SDF offensive west of the Euphrates would amount to crossing a ‘red line’ that could lead to Turkish military intervention. Since the ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ was launched, fierce fighting has erupted between SDF, YPG, and Turkish forces. Turkish airstrikes have bombarded YPG and SDF positions in northern Syria, reportedly killing more than 200 Kurdish fighters on October 20. The PYD has declared that it will combat any Turkish forces that threaten its territory.
While the PYD wants to exclude Turkey from being involved in the Raqqa offensive, Ankara has other plans. The Turkish government has previously expressed its desire to take Raqqa following the Mosul offensive. This likely accelerated the SDF’s launch of ‘Euphrates Anger’ in order to preempt Ankara. Nevertheless, ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ has afforded the Turkish forces an ideal staging ground in northern Syria from which they can influence the battle for Raqqa and better check Kurdish advances in the future.
The Problem with the YPG-led SDF
Despite Washington’s persistent praise of the SDF as an ethnically-mixed and crack force that could liberate Raqqa, a closer analysis reveals that the SDF will struggle to capture, let alone hold, the Sunni Arab dominated city due to its lack of a strong Arab component. The Americans helped the YPG create the mixed Arab and Kurdish SDF in October 2015 in part to bypass Turkish pressure on Washington to stop backing the PKK-linked YPG, and also to alleviate Arab concern over the coalition’s reliance on Kurdish ground troops in the fight against ISIS. Similar to the situation in Iraq, many Syrian Arabs believe the YPG was created by the West to subjugate the Arabs to Kurdish rule. Any Raqqa liberation force that is perceived to be Kurdish will likely encounter significant Arab resistance in the Arab dominated city.
Washington’s official statements regarding the SDF have often overinflated the Arab component’s presence. The special presidential envoy for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, stated in February 2016 that at the time of the YPG-SDF capture of the ISIS controlled town of al-Shadadi in Raqqa province, 60 percent of the SDF’s fighters were Kurdish while 40 percent were Arabs. Yet unfortunately for the coalition, reports from the SDF’s frontlines indicate that the Arab fighters’ impact in the SDF is negligible when compared to that of the YPG forces. A Kurdish journalist following the SDF’s advance on al-Shadadi observed that the Arab members of the SDF had next to no impact on the battle and they were simply manning the theatre’s reserve operations. Indeed, what few SDF Arab ground troops exist appear too weak to recapture Arab territory without rigorous Kurdish backing.
Interestingly, the SDF claimed in its announcement of ‘Euphrates Anger’ that about 80 percent of its fighters involved in the offensive are citizens from Raqqa, presumably mostly Arabs. While these numbers seem implausible in their own right, those figures appear to directly contradict the Pentagon’s statement that same day that Arab forces only make up about a third of the SDF. US Department of Defense officials acknowledge that more Arab units need to be trained so that Raqqa can be liberated by a primarily Arab force. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether these newly-trained units will be capable of liberating the city from seasoned ISIS fighters, particularly compared to their more experienced Kurdish counterparts.
In summary, the ongoing search for a capable Arab liberation force for Raqqa and Turkish opposition will likely prevent the recapture of the city any time in the near future by the SDF. Despite the SDF’s launch of ‘Euphrates Anger’, the anti-ISIS coalition doesn’t appear to have found the ground troops necessary to retake, let alone hold, ISIS’s last remaining Syrian stronghold.
John Holland-McCowan is a Research Fellow at ICSR. Follow him on Twitter @jhollandmccowan
By John Holland-McCowan, Research Fellow, ICSR