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The Impact of the Kurdish-Led Campaign to Isolate Raqqa

Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the U.S., are engaged in an operation to push ISIS out of its de facto capital, but the campaign comes at a cost, writes Syrian researcher Haid Haid.

Written by Haid Haid Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
U.S.-backed fighters taking a rest during fighting with the Islamic State group near Ein Issa, north of Raqqa, Syria. Qasioun, a Syrian Opposition Media Outlet, via AP

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Nov. 5 that they would be launching Operation Euphrates Wrath to isolate Raqqa – the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). The operation – backed by the U.S.-led coalition – aims to encircle Raqqa by taking control of surrounding villages and access routes to weaken ISIS and ultimately liberate the city.

The short-term focus of this operation, however, has created ethnic divisions between Arab and Kurdish groups within the SDF. It has also created new waves of displacement among locals, which could be used as a recruiting tool by ISIS. Additionally, it has increased tension between Syrian Kurds and Turkey, which may lead to full-scale military confrontations in the future.

The reported planning inside Raqqa of significant external terror attacks and the Obama administration’s search for more significant achievements against ISIS have led to the premature announcement of the operation to isolate the extremist group. The U.S. views the SDF as the only local force capable of executing such an operation in the near term, despite the challenges facing this alliance.

Turkey opposes any cooperation between the U.S. and Syrian Kurds. The country is worried that advances by Syrian Kurdish fighters will embolden Kurdish militants in its own southeast, where for three decades it has been fighting an insurgency led by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The U.S., focused on its short-term objective of militarily defeating ISIS, is sending mixed signals to all its allies – neglecting the long-term consequences of such actions and the risk of sparking secondary conflicts.

The Raqqa campaign has led to internal divisions between Arab and Kurdish groups within the SDF and resulted in the withdrawal of Arab forces from the operation. In a statement released on Nov. 8, Liwa Thuwwar Raqqa (Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade) – the main Arab group within the SDF and most popular in Raqqa – announced that it would not participate in the operation. “The brigade refused to participate in the operation because the YPG [the People’s Protection Units, the main military wing of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration] did not keep to what we had agreed: that the battle be led by the [Raqqa Revolutionaries’] Brigade and that the fighters all come from Raqqa itself,” said Liwa Thuwwar’s political office leader, Mahmoud Hadi. “But what happened on the ground has unfortunately been the complete opposite to what we had agreed.” The Brigade’s move aims to pressurize the U.S. to abide by its statement to let Arab forces take the lead in the operations.

Reported Kurdish forces’ violations against Arab communities, especially during their June 2015 attack on Tal Abyad, have led Arabs to mistrust the Kurdish forces. As a result – and due to Turkey’s hostile position toward the YPG and the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) – the U.S. supported and funded the creation of the SDF, a Kurdish-led alliance with some Arab and Assyrian fighting groups. The absence of Arab forces in the fight to isolate Raqqa, where Arabs are the majority, will increase tensions and mistrust in the SDF operation and lead to confrontations with local communities, which will directly benefit ISIS.

The SDF’s Raqqa operation also led to new waves of displacement among local communities, where Arabs are the majority – which is playing into the hands of ISIS. On Nov. 11, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported large-scale displacement among locals in the Hamisha district, as well as in other villages in eastern Raqqa province. The SDFISIS fighting, displacement of locals and U.S.-led airstrikes – which were reported to have killed 20 noncombatants in Hamisha – have forced many local people to leave their homes. Moreover, there has been a growing trend among local communities to turn away people fleeing from ISIS-controlled territories for fear that they belong to sleeper cells of the terrorist group.

Such violations and practices caused the people living in communities under ISIS to feel indifferent toward the operation because they believe this will simply replace one enemy with another. In other cases, it has reportedly contributed to pushing people to join ISIS because they are fearful of what might happen once it is kicked out; they see Islamic State as “the devil they know.” So ISIS losses against the Kurdish-dominated SDF, which locals in ISIS-controlled areas do not see as friendly, allow the terrorist group to benefit from its defeats and use fear as a recruiting tool.

To achieve its short-term objective of driving ISIS out of Raqqa, the U.S. is sending mixed signals in an attempt to please all its allies at once. The same day that the SDF announced its Raqqa operation, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, rushed to Ankara for a four-hour meeting with his Turkish counterpart. He assured Turkey that the Kurds would not take on the main role of liberating Raqqa and that Turkish views would be taken into account before any final assault.

Nonetheless, in a recent interview, Salih Muslim – a co-leader of the PYD – said Dunford’s statement “was more of a ‘declaration of intent’ on the part of the Americans rather than a firm commitment toward Turkey.” This is not the first time the U.S. has made promises to the Turkish government it could not keep with regard to Syrian Kurds. It promised Turkey in August that the SDF would allow local Arabs to run the city of Manbij after liberating it from ISIS; however, the SDF still remains in Manbij three months later. The failure or unwillingness of the U.S. to fulfill its promises in Manbij – which is likely to happen also in Raqqa – led to a number of clashes between the SDF and Turkey backed by its Syrian rebel allies.

The Raqqa operation is a continuation of the U.S. balancing act between Syrian Kurds and Turkey. This strategy, which avoids confrontation by sending mixed signals to its allies, has allowed the U.S. to degrade ISIS in Syria, but at the cost of increasing local tensions. The current operation, in the absence of clear roles and agreements among the U.S. allies, will likely increase the frequency and intensity of military confrontations between Turkey and the rebel groups it backs and the SDF as they come into further contact along shared front lines. This fighting, as well as the lack of a credible alternative to Islamic Front that enjoys popular support, will benefit radical groups like ISIS.

This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council and is reprinted here with permission.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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