In Raqqa offensive, Kurds seek 'insurance' against Turkish attack
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Both Turkey and their Kurdish foes in Syria have argued that they should lead the battle to drive the Islamic State (IS) group out of Raqqa. But the bitter rivals are more concerned with keeping each other in check than tackling the jihadist bastion.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) made their move on Sunday, announcing the start of their offensive to capture the IS group's de facto capital. The coalition – which includes Arab groups but is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – engaged in skirmishes with jihadist fighters north of Raqqa, and warned Turkey against interfering with the operation.
The long-expected move has angered Ankara, which also claims it should lead the battle for Raqqa. Turkey sees the YPG as an appendage of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), its mortal foe that has fought for decades for independence for Turkey's Kurdish minority. Turkish authorities accuse the Kurds of seeking to take over Arab lands, including Raqqa. They are calling for time to train Arab forces to liberate the city.
According to Fabrice Balanche, a Middle East expert and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, neither side has the means – or the will – to tackle the jihadist bastion. “For the Kurds, Raqqa is an insurance policy against Turkish aggression,” Balanche told FRANCE 24. Conversely, “Turkey sees Raqqa as a pretext to break up Kurdish territory and prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state,” he added.
Among the multiple actors in the Syrian conflict, the YPG and its allies have emerged as the most potent ground force in the battle against the IS group. In pushing toward Raqqa, they hope to cement their standing as the West’s indispensable partner in Syria. Indeed, the US and its allies have welcomed news of the Kurdish-led offensive, dubbed "Wrath of the Euphrates", and promised air support.
The international coalition battling the IS group is eager to keep the militants on the defensive in Syria and Iraq, where it is helping local forces, including the Kurdish peshmerga, recapture the northern city of Mosul. France, in particular, wants to neutralize the jihadist group’s capacity to strike abroad, with the anniversary of the November 13, 2015, attacks in Paris looming. Western intelligence agencies believe such attacks are planned in Raqqa.
Coalition leaders have been struggling with the timing of the Raqqa campaign, not only because of the demands of the Mosul operation but also because the political and military landscape in Syria is far more complicated, amid a protracted civil war that has devastated much of the country. The rivalry between Turkey and the Kurds is a particularly thorny issue in this complex landscape.
Washington is embroiled in a delicate balancing act between its NATO ally Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish forces it trained and equipped. Last month, US President Barack Obama spent more than two hours on the telephone with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an attempt to overcome Erdogan's objections to YPG participation in the Raqqa offensive.
Whether or not Turkey agrees, the YPG fighters are a necessary part of the Raqqa offensive, the US commander of anti-IS coalition forces said last week. "The facts are these the only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend. "So, we're negotiating, we're planning, we're having talks with Turkey and we're gonna take this in steps."
According to Balanche, in strict military terms Raqqa presents a less daunting challenge than Mosul. “It is smaller, less dense, and with large avenues that can easily be penetrated by armed vehicles,” he said. “Its buildings are also lower, meaning they are less suited to snipers and to use civilians as human shields. And while Mosul is crossed by the River Tigris, Raqqa sits just north of the Euphrates, meaning it can be attacked from the north, east and west without having to cross the river.”
The US plan for Raqqa calls for an assault force of thousands of fighters from the YPG and their Arabs allies, whose job it would be to take and hold the city itself. But as US special forces struggle to recruit enough Arab fighters, experts doubt that Washington will be able to soon field an Arab force capable of defeating the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 IS group militants holed up in Raqqa.
“The Kurdish-led SDF currently has insufficient forces at its disposal to capture the city,” Balanche said. Kurdish territory, stretching just north of Raqqa, provides the ideal training ground and launch pad for a future assault on the IS group’s bastion, he added. “But the Kurds will not sacrifice their own men to take Raqqa alone. Especially not if it means Turkey can then stab them in the back.”
While Kurdish forces are ideally placed to spearhead the Raqqa offensive, they are also vulnerable to incursions from Turkey, which has amassed troops along its southeastern border with Syria, and trained a motley force of Arab and Turkmen rebels from Syria, including remnants of the once powerful Free Syrian Army (FSA).
For Ankara, defeating the IS group is not as high a priority as preventing the establishment of a Kurdish state along its border, which might serve as a rear base for the PKK. Should Turkish-backed forces launch a southward thrust, ostensibly heading for Raqqa, they would drive a wedge between Kurdish enclaves the YPG is desperate to hold together.
One option for Turkey and its allies would be to enter through the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad, which is on the most direct route to Raqqa. The area is mostly populated by Arabs, including tribes that took part in the expulsion of the local Kurdish population in 2013. Fearing reprisals, those tribes fled to Turkey when the area was captured by the YPG in 2015.
“Turkey could seek to foment an Arab revolt in Tal Abyad and then come to the locals’ rescue, using the fugitive Arab tribes as a pretext,” said Balanche. “But the Turkish-backed forces are unlikely to go any further than what is required to break up Kurdish territory. They would be incapable of capturing Raqqa.”
Russia's red line
Turkey is already thwarting efforts to unite Kurdish enclaves further west, where it is carving out a buffer zone on Syrian territory, free of both IS group militants and Kurdish forces. Ankara-backed rebels are now locked in a race with the SDF to capture the strategic town of Al-Bab, which is currently held by the IS group.
Should Al-Bab fall to the Turkish-backed force, it would effectively end Kurdish hopes of linking all their enclaves in Syria – and possibly affect their readiness to take part in the Raqqa offensive. It would also alarm the Syrian regime and its Russian ally, by threatening their stranglehold on rebels besieged in nearby Aleppo.
“Russia has secretly agreed to a Turkish buffer zone in Syria, but only 25 kilometers deep. [President Vladimir] Putin will allow no more,” said Balanche, noting that Al-Bab is some 30 kilometres from the Turkish border. “Al-Bab will eventually be recaptured by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies, because it is of strategic value to the battle for Aleppo,” he added.
With his efforts focused on Aleppo, the country’s former economic hub, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has so far kept out of the race for Raqqa. “For now, Assad and Russia are busy elsewhere, but once Aleppo and [the central] Hama Province are secure, they will try to push further east,” said Balanche. “Meanwhile, they are happy to let the Kurds, Turks and Americans wrangle over Raqqa.”