Turkey Picks Its Battles in the Fight for Raqqa

7 MINS READFeb 22, 2017 | 00:26 GMT
Turkey Picks Its Battles in the Fight for Raqqa
(OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkey is trying to get its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council to commit ground troops for the fight to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State and, in the process, reduce Kurdish fighters' role in the offensive.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

With a new national security adviser in place, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration can move on to other security matters. The first order of business will be to try to demonstrate that the United States is making real and rapid progress against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But much of the administration's planning depends on Turkey, which has very specific ideas about how the offensive on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa should be carried out. The United States has room to make some tactical compromises with Turkey over how to conduct the operation. Still, since Ankara does not expect Washington to fully support its plan, it is looking to its allies in the Persian Gulf for help advancing its regional agenda.

The Raqqa conundrum is convoluted from an operational standpoint, but it's fairly simple to explain. Up to this point in the fight against the Islamic State, the United States has relied heavily on Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters, who make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Syria's largest rebel group. Washington has poured money into training and arming the SDF, and it hopes to get the most out of its investment by using the forces in the next major battle against the Islamic State, the fight for the critical city of Raqqa. In fact, the SDF has already begun advancing on the city; some of its troops are now just half a dozen kilometers away.

Turkey, however, wants to put the brakes on the operation until it can have more say over which forces will enter and seize Raqqa. If Ankara could have its way, the YPG would have no role in the offensive. The Turkish government, after all, does not distinguish between the militia and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, an organization it considers a terrorist group and is fighting at home. The last thing Turkey wants is to give the battle-hardened Kurdish forces a chance to establish themselves in cantons across northern Syria with the intent to build an autonomous state of their own. Ankara would sooner shake up the rebel coalition and replace its Kurdish members with fighters it can trust. That way, the Turkish government will have a more direct influence in shaping the Raqqa mission and its aftermath, while also keeping the Kurds divided. Turkey has even offered to send more of its own special operations forces to the fight to demonstrate its commitment.

Though Washington has no interest in slowing down the Raqqa offensive, it has taken the time to hear out Ankara's concerns over the past several days. The United States sees Turkey as a critical NATO ally with an expanding sphere of influence in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Turkish forces are well positioned to undermine the Raqqa offensive should Turkey get upset with how the United States is shaping the fight in Syria. Turkey could, for instance, attack SDF forces in and around Manbij to draw more of the group's fighters away from the battle in Raqqa. It is little surprise, then, that a flurry of U.S.-Turkish meetings has taken place in recent days. CIA Director Mike Pompeo traveled to Ankara on Feb. 9, and a few days later, a delegation of Turkish Foreign Ministry, military and intelligence officials visited Washington. On Friday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met his Turkish counterpart at Incirlik base in southern Turkey to go over the Raqqa proposals and work out the lingering kinks. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim then discussed the matter with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference the next day.  

Even if Washington won't cut ties with the YPG and remove the forces from the Raqqa operation, it can still work with Ankara on several issues. For example, the United States could emphasize the Syrian Arab Coalition, another of the SDF's constituent militias, as the main fighting force in the attack on Raqqa itself. It could also keep denying direct military support to the YPG (U.S. military aid is channeled through the Syrian Arab Coalition) or agree to include Turkish-backed rebels in the operation to retake Raqqa. Turkey, meanwhile, has been quietly working on a proposal that could further crowd the battlefield in Syria. Ankara has long advocated giving regional Arab forces a greater role in the fight against the Islamic State. Doing so would not only add enough manpower and resources to displace the YPG, but it would also undermine the perception that Turkey is enabling a neo-Ottoman occupation of Arab lands. (The United States is also keen to recruit more Arab fighters into the Syrian Arab Coalition to spearhead the effort to breach and take the overwhelmingly Arab city of Raqqa.)

To assess the level of commitment that the Gulf states would be willing to make, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan toured the region during the week of Feb. 13, visiting Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey and the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have a common interest in counterbalancing Iran on the Syrian battlefield, but it remains to be seen whether the GCC countries will send ground troops to the fight. Multiple Stratfor sources have indicated that Turkey may be succeeding in its efforts to secure troop commitments from the GCC, though the countries' governments have yet to comment on the matter. If Turkey has managed to negotiate a bulkier Arab component for the Raqqa fight, the forces will likely start moving into the battle zone soon, perhaps even within a few weeks. The arrival of thousands of GCC troops in Syria would be hard to miss; even small U.S. special operations deployments have been sighted repeatedly across northern Syria despite their attempts to limit their visibility.

The GCC states will have much to consider as they decide whether to answer the Turkish and U.S. appeal to commit troops to the fight in Raqqa. Qatar, which shares a closer military alliance with Turkey than its peers in the bloc do, may be more willing to contribute troops. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, on the other hand, have complications at home to think about. Saudi Arabia has been trying to position itself as a leader in the regional fight against the Islamic State, but it has struggled to negotiate the competing interests of the 34-member Islamic military coalition that it launched in late 2015. In addition, Riyadh is already in the midst of military operations in Yemen — an endeavor that has cost it financially and politically. Bahrain, meanwhile, could contribute a small number of troops. But the Shiite-majority country's Sunni government is reportedly seeking assurances from Saudi Arabia that it will have additional security forces at its disposal if protesters lash out at it for getting involved in Syria.

Washington will not grant Turkey everything on its wish list for the Raqqa campaign. A stronger Arab presence in the fight, however, is imperative to Turkey's goal to keep the Kurds in check in northern Syria. Moscow, Tehran and Damascus will be watching carefully to see if Ankara can pull off the plan. The powers are already unnerved by the talk from the Turkish and U.S. administrations of creating safe zones, which would undermine Syria's territorial integrity. At the same time, loyalist forces risk clashing with Turkish troops around the city of al-Bab in northern Syria. The prospect of greater Arab involvement in the fight will only compel the opposing forces to dig their heels in deeper for an extended proxy war.

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