Over the weekend of November 4th, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with his Turkish counterpart, General Hulusi Akar, in Ankara. Dunford stated after the meeting that the U.S. and Turkey, “will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa.” Such an announcement is a welcome step to ensuring the stability of the anti-ISIS fight. The U.S. must make a serious effort to remain an honest broker between its partners to maintain a sort of peace between the various anti-ISIS forces, if not cooperation. As the Syrian Democratic Forces operation to encircle Raqqa continues and the U.S. and its partners make long term plans, continued efforts like Dunford’s visit will be crucial to long term success in Raqqa.
Two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter suggested that a U.S.-backed operation to retake Raqqa would start within “the next few weeks.” Lt. General Stephen Townsend, the commanding general of Operation Inherent Resolve, said that there was a “sense of urgency” to remove ISIS from Raqqa in order to stem growing terror threats against the West. General Townsend elaborated that, “our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external attack planning going on” in Raqqa. These initial statements suggested a serious disconnect between the U.S. and Turkey. Almost immediately after Townsend’s comments, reports surfaced that Turkey rejected the U.S. plan because of YPG involvement.
As the Syrian Democratic Forces operation to encircle Raqqa continues and the U.S. and its partners make long term plans, continued efforts like Dunford’s visit will be crucial to long term success in Raqqa.
After the initial announcement by Sec. Carter, U.S. officials walked back their statements of an imminent operation. Reports also surfaced that U.S. officials were in discussions with the Turkish government about the operation. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began operations to encircle Raqqa over the weekend of November 4th, supported by coalitional airpower. On November 6, U.S. officials confirmed that the SDF began a push to encircle Raqqa. U.S. Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told the New York Times that the operation would likely take some time before the SDF actually reached Raqqa. That announcement was followed shortly by Dunford’s announcement that Turkey would continue to play a large role in the Raqqa operation.
The renewed sense of urgency in the U.S. to deal with Raqqa in an attempt to head off terror attacks in the West stems from a flawed set of priorities. That the U.S. is concerned about a possible external attack by ISIS is not surprising, nor is it a misplaced concern. However, expediting the operation against Raqqa will not stop the group from planning and exporting terror to the rest of world. In Iraq, despite the ongoing offensive against Mosul, ISIS forces attacked Kirkuk on October 21. While it did not stop Kurdish and Iraqi forces from pressing the offensive against ISIS in Mosul, the attack demonstrated the group’s will and ability to still act in other arenas.
The SDF is predominantly composed of Kurdish fighters from the YPG, the armed branch of the PYD, a group closely affiliated with the PKK, a Kurdish terror group based in Turkey. Though the U.S. has made efforts to attract Arab fighters to the SDF, the groups remains largely composed of and beholden to the YPG. The conflict between SDF and FSA/Turkish forces near al Bab is a recent example of the competing, and at times conflicting interests of the groups. Both the SDF and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) are looking to reclaim the city. Al Bab is a significant city for all actors, including the FSA, the SDF, ISIS, and Turkey. For both the SDF and Turkey, beyond the fight against ISIS, the importance of al Bab hinges on its role as a crossroads between the Kurdish territories in Rojava in the east and Afrin in the west. After capturing Dabiq mid-October, the FSA/Turkish operation Euphrates Shield turned towards al Bab, further south. On October 21, Kurdish forces, also moving towards al Bab, were shelled by Turkey.
Speaking anonymously at the end of October, a U.S. official said that the U.S. has “contacts and influence over all the actors [in northern Syria]. But we’re not in perfect control.” The Obama administration, and the Trump administration after that, should keep that in mind as they enact plans in the region. The meeting and agreement that Dunford announced is a good step in maintaining the stability of the anti-ISIS fight in northern Syria. The U.S. should continue to leverage all that it can in order to bring its partners, both tactical and strategic, to some form of agreement on Raqqa. Without such an agreement, any operation in Raqqa risks sparking conflict between the various forces there, giving ISIS what would be a welcome reprieve. The meeting between Dunford and Akar is a positive sign that the U.S. will take the concerns of its Turkish partners into account. Accounting for these concerns will be vital to maintaining a cohesive campaign against ISIS.