U.S. C-17 cargo aircraft dropped 122 pallets of small arms and ammunition to rebel groups fighting the Islamic State in northeastern Syria on Oct. 12. The forces belong to the newly minted Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of anti-Islamic State Sunni Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian Christian militias.
Many have interpreted the recent U.S. supply drop to the Syrian Democratic Forces as an entirely new initiative – a desperate bid to salvage Washington's Syria strategy after ditching the Pentagon's train-and-equip program. These supplies, however, are just one small part of a longstanding U.S. effort in the area.
The now-defunct U.S. plan to train and equip rebel groups was only one of several programs initiated in Syria and was by no means the most important. Washington's efforts in the southern and northeastern parts of the country have proved far more successful, as has the not-so-covert CIA program to equip rebels battling the government of President Bashar al Assad in the northwest. The latter initiative supplied BGM-71 TOW missiles that greatly enhanced the rebel offensive in Idlib province. These advances against loyalist forces have heightened the threat to the Alawite heartland, which was one important factor prompting Russia to intervene in Syria.
What Success Looks Like
The U.S. programs in the northeast have been ongoing for some time and have in fact proven quite effective. The United States first airdropped weapons in October 2014 to the Free Syrian Army and to Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) during the defense of Kobani. Both are now involved in the Syrian Democratic Forces. Washington has since then continued to supply these forces with help from Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government. The only limit to the program's success and expansion has come from the Turkish government, which objects to assisting the YPG because the Kurdish militia has close ties with Turkey's militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
With the help of these weapons drops and a robust coalition air campaign, rebel forces managed to defeat the Islamic State at Kobani. The groups then continued their offensive in hopes of pushing the Islamic State completely out of the northeast. Many of these anti-Islamic State militias joined a coalition called Euphrates Volcano, the main coalition force north and east of the Euphrates River in Syria.
The Euphrates Volcano campaign to beat back the Islamic State in Raqqa province has been quite effective, and the rebel coalition has regained a great deal of territory. They have even managed to take all the Islamic State's border crossings east of the Euphrates River and lifted the Islamic State siege of al-Hasaka.
The past year of cooperation has allowed the Euphrates Volcano forces and the U.S.-led coalition to develop an ad hoc but highly effective system to call in air support. The aerial assistance that brought victory at Kobani quickly became a critical component of the coalition's offensive operations.
Now these former Euphrates Volcano forces are operating under the rubric of the Syrian Democratic Forces alongside new anti-Islamic State partners, including Assyrian Christian militias from the al-Hasaka area. Free Syrian Army elements in the bloc such as Jaish al-Thuwar have also incorporated fighters from groups that include the Hazzm Movement and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.
These new fighters had been pushed out of northwestern Syria by al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Both the Hazzm Movement and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front worked closely with the United States in northwestern Syria. They also received U.S. training and weapons, including BGM-71 TOW missiles. These ties likely still endure, which means components of the Syrian Democratic Forces could maintain close relations with the CIA — a vital source for training and advanced weapons.
The Syrian Democratic Forces' inclusion of Arabs and Assyrian Christians is also important because it will allow the new bloc to present itself as more than just a Kurdish proxy. This will help the Syrian Democratic Forces as they conduct offensives outside Syria's Kurdish enclaves, especially if they aim to capture the Islamic State capital, Raqqa. Indeed, the YPG's Arab allies were vital to previous offensives against the Islamic State in non-Kurdish areas of Raqqa province. Emphasizing the Arab elements within the Syrian Democratic Forces may help minimize animosity toward the movement on the part of local Arab tribes and is also intended to help mute concern that Kurdish offensives are part of an ethnically-motivated campaign to seize power.
Retrenchment, not Retreat
The U.S. decision to cut the Pentagon's train-and-equip program must be seen in the context of successful U.S. collaboration with rebel forces elsewhere. The recent abandonment was simply a choice to cut a failing program in order to focus on the much more effective Syrian Democratic Forces initiative.
And in spite of negative press over the U.S. effort in Syria and a focus on the Russian intervention in the northeast, the United States has had real success cooperating with rebel groups on the ground. The Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by coalition air power, pose a serious threat to the Islamic State in Raqqa and have managed to a position themselves just south of Ain Issa — within 48 kilometers (30 miles) of the Islamic State's capital.
Should the Syrian Democratic Forces capture Raqqa from Islamic State, the victory would be highly symbolic. The city was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate from A.D. 769 to A.D. 809, when it moved to Baghdad. As Will McCants notes in his book, "The ISIS Apocalypse," the Islamic State has intentionally sought to emulate the Abbasid caliphate in many ways. The group aims to conquer Baghdad, for example. Driving the Islamic State out of its capital would go a long way toward shattering the group's image as the inexorable heirs of the Abbasids empowered by Allah to conquer the earth.
Taking Raqqa would have clear strategic value for the anti-Islamic State effort as well. The area around the city is an important hub for transporting people and supplies: Raqaa sits on the Euphrates River and controls critical highways. For the Islamic State, rivers are essential – waterways and their flanking roads are the geographic core of the Islamic State's web of control.
Conquering the area around Raqqa will also serve to effectively cut the Islamic State pocket northeast of Aleppo off from the rest of its territory and make it hard to move supplies and troops. This would be particularly devastating if Turkey establishes the safe zone it has discussed implementing in northern Syria between Jarabulus and Azaz. Reaching the Euphrates River would also open up routes to use in an eventual campaign toward Deir el-Zour. This offensive would likely be combined with an operation to push down the Khabur River from al-Hasaka.
Deir el-Zour is another critical logistics hub, and the Raqqa to Deir el-Zour corridor serves as the heart of the Islamic State's Syrian territory. If they lose that area it will be difficult for the various regional arms of their organization to function as a cohesive whole. It would also deprive them of the current advantage they have of being able to operate along internal lines of communication and quickly shift resources from front to front.
While the eyes of the world are currently fixed on Syria's northwest region, tracking the operations of Syrian loyalists and their Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah allies, it will be important to also pay careful attention to the very significant operations happening east of the Euphrates River.