December 10, 2016

More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?

Alleged US special operations forces in Syria

On December 10, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the deployment of an additional 200 American troops to support the impending attack on the self-proclaimed Islamic State capital city of al-Raqqah. The additional troops will bring the declared American troop level in Syria to 500. Their mission will remain the same, per Secretary Carter, to "recruit, organize, train and advise local Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces to fight" the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The "local Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces" Carter references are the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). This group presents itself as Arab-Kurdish cooperation, and is an attempt to put to present a less-threatening image of Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS.

Why is that necessary? The Turks are alarmed of even the merest hint of Kurdish nationalism or autonomy in either Syria or Iraq, believing any such movement will spill over into southern Turkey. That said, the Kurds comprise the bulk of the SDF and constitute the most effective force facing ISIS.

This announcement will not please the Turks, and not only for the reasons above. The Turks are supporting a Free Syrian Army (FSA) assault in northern Syrian called Operation Euphrates Shield (dara' al-furat) with air, armor, artillery and special operations forces. The operation - in conjunction with Kurdish-controlled areas on the border - has been successful in almost totally closing the Turkish frontier to ISIS, hurting the group's ability to bring in new recruits and supplies from Turkey.

The Turkish-supported FSA forces are making good progress, pushing southeast towards al-Raqqah. In the last few days, they have reached the ISIS-held city of al-Bab. But al-Bab is almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah - it will take weeks, possibly months for the FSA to reach and mount an attack on al-Raqqah. In contrast, the U.S.-backed SDF forces are within 25 miles of the ISIS capital.

It is Turkey's stated policy that al-Raqqah should be liberated by the FSA (with their support). They claim that to the residents of al-Raqqah, the SDF will be regarded as a Kurdish force despite the "SDF" designation and minor Arab participation. In essence, according to the FSA and Turks, the people will be trading one oppressor for another.

Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaking out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, hoping that even a Kurdish liberating force would be better than ISIS and at some point life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.

It appears from Secretary Carter's announcement that the United States will increase its support to the SDF, that we won't wait for the Turkish-supported FSA to reach al-Raqqah and possibly urge the SDF to move on the city in the near future.

In October, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said there are threats to the United States in planning in al-Raqqah and that time is of the essence.

I wrote at the time, "The timing, according to U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, is being driven by planning and potential execution of terror attacks against Western targets emanating from the ISIS "capital" and main operations center. The general did not name a specific threat or target." (For the complete article, see The coming assault on al-Raqqah - a political minefield.)

If General Townsend is correct and the timeline to mount an assault on al-Raqqah is short, these additional American forces will be welcome. Although 200 troops - even the final number of 500 troops in Syria - does not sound like a lot, they bring special capabilities to the effort. Rather than being direct action forces, although they have conducted such missions, they are true "force multipliers," leveraging American air power, intelligence and logistics in support of the very effective Kurdish-dominant SDF.

The problem with a decision to move ahead of the arrival of the Turkish-backed FSA Euphrates Shield force is that it will alienate Turkey, a NATO ally. However, if there is a major threat to Western targets, waiting for the FSA to reach al-Raqqah is not an option.

The Turks will have to understand that this is not about them, or the Kurds - it is about our own security.