The Risks of the U.S.’ Balancing Act in Syria
On January 28, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in coordination with other national security and foreign policy principals, to develop a new plan to defeat ISIS. Though much of the review delivered by Secretary Mattis to the White House in late February was classified, it appears that the Pentagon recommended a strategy similar to the one followed by the Obama administration. A key component of that strategy was, and appears to still be, U.S. reliance in Syria on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the largest faction of which is the Syrian Kurdish YPG, the armed branch of the PYD. Given actions and statements by various military leaders and spokespersons, the Trump administration will continue to support and rely upon the SDF. In early March, the commander of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, and the commander of the anti-ISIS coalition, General Stephen Townsend, visited a U.S. outpost in SDF-held territory and reaffirmed their position that the YPG should play a role in the operation to retake Raqqa, lauding the SDF as a reliable and highly capable partner.
The decision to rely on the SDF in Syria is not a purely technical one, and further expansion of U.S. support for the group carries costs and risks.
The U.S. also appears to be expanding its footprint in Syria in preparation for the coming fight for Raqqa. A contingent of U.S. Marines deployed to northern Syria in the first week of March, reportedly to provide fire support for the assault on the city. U.S. military officials told reporters that plans have been drawn up to send up to 1,000 additional troops to Syria, which would more than double the current number of U.S. troops deployed there. On the 22nd of May, the U.S. airdropped SDF forces near the ISIS-held town of Tabqa in an attempt to open another front for the assault on Raqqa. The decision to increase the number of U.S. troops and possibly expedite the timeline in the assault on Raqqa is in line with many of Trump’s comments from the campaign trail, where he promised to destroy ISIS.
Continued reliance on the SDF is not all that surprising given the widespread sense in Washington, D.C. that the SDF is the most effective partner for the U.S. in Syria. Yet the decision to rely on the SDF in Syria is not a purely technical one, and further expansion of U.S. support for the group carries costs and risks. During General Votel’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Armed Services on March 9, Republican Senator John McCain expressed his concerns that the administration is not taking Turkish concerns about the YPG seriously enough. Turkey, a key U.S. ally, considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the PKK, a U.S. and EU designated terror group, and sees the YPG as a major threat to its own national security. While the ties between the YPG and PKK may be the worst-kept secret in Syria, the U.S. has offered assurances to Turkey that the SDF and the YPG present no threat to Turkey.
Despite those assurances, Turkey and the YPG have clashed in northern Syria and the Turkish government has long opposed YPG involvement in efforts to retake Raqqa. Turkish officials even supplied the U.S. with an alternative proposal to retake Raqqa and have repeatedly called on the U.S. to cease its support for the YPG-dominated SDF. While the U.S. was able to mollify the Turkish government regarding the SDF operation to retake Manbij from ISIS in the summer of 2016, it was only able to do so by agreeing that YPG forces would return east of the Euphrate River after the fall of Manbij. Turkey has maintained that the YPG has yet to withdraw to the east bank of the river, causing friction between the U.S. and its NATO ally. It appears that the new administration recognizes that friction and is working to address it, deploying U.S. forces from the Army Ranger Regiment to the city of Manbij with Stryker armored vehicles. In a briefing on March 13, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said that the deployment of U.S. forces to Manbij had been “relatively successful” in preventing conflict between rival groups on the ground, referring to SDF and FSA forces.
The Trump administration’s current approach to fighting ISIS and retaking Raqqa appears to be of two minds. Despite concerns that the new administration might rush headlong into its efforts to defeat ISIS without addressing the various concerns that the fight in northern Syria entails, the Trump White House appears to be taking a deliberative approach to the fight for Raqqa, at least in some regards. Shortly after taking office, it was reported that the new administration had decided to scrap the Obama administration’s plan for Raqqa, in part because it did not have a plan on how to address Turkish concerns. After the Pentagon delivered its review of the anti-ISIS strategy, there were reports that the assault on Raqqa and questions over support for the YPG would be delayed until after the Turkish referendum on April 16th. Nevertheless, the U.S. continues to support SDF operations around Raqqa, as seen in the recent air assault on Tabqa.
As the battle for Raqqa draws closer, the administration will need to closely inspect its plan if it hopes to strike a lasting defeat to ISIS and bring peace to northern Syria. Turkish government officials have warned that continued reliance on the YPG-backed SDF may harm the bilateral U.S.-Turkish relationship and that Turkey will not participate in an offensive for Raqqa if the YPG is involved. The current balancing act of political deliberations while conducting military operations cannot hold, especially if the U.S. hopes to maintain the coalition’s momentum against ISIS in northern Syria.