June 8, 2017

An alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government?

Linkup of  Syrian regime and SDF forces west of al-Raqqah

After weeks of fighting, elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian army coalition have successfully seized a large swath of territory from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the area east of Aleppo and west of al-Raqqah (see above map). The two military forces have met up with each other after the SDF attacked from the east and the regime attacked from the west on the southern bank of Lake al-Asad.

This comes at the same time that the SDF has begun the battle for the self-proclaimed ISIS capital city of al-Raqqah. The SDF is supported by air strikes and artillery fires by elements of the U.S.-led coalition.

I expect the battle for al-Raqqah to be difficult and slow, despite reports that many ISIS fighters have left the al-Raqqah and moved their operations nearer to the city of Dayr al-Zawr in what ISIS calls wilayat al-furat (Euphrates province).

The city and air base at Dayr al-Zawr are an ISIS-besieged Syrian government enclave under constant attack. It is only through a large number of Russian and Syrian air force airstrikes that the air base and city have not fallen to ISIS.

Al-Raqqah will fall to the SDF - the joint Kurdish-Arab alliance has proven itself to be an effective military force, seizing almost all of ISIS-held territory in northern Syria. The primary fighters in the SDF are the Kurds of the People's Protection Units (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎, or YPG).

The U.S. decision to arm the YPG has caused a rift with NATO ally Turkey, who regards the YPG as nothing more than an extension of the Kurdish separatist organization - and designated terrorist group - known as the PKK.

The U.S. decision was based on the situation on the ground. Turkey supported a Free Syrian Army (FSA) incursion into an ISIS-controlled area of the Kurdish region east of the Euphrates River. It was envisioned by the Turks that this force would eventually fight its way through the ISIS-controlled, regime-controlled, and yes, even the Kurdish-controlled areas all the way to al-Raqqah. Their mistake was refusing to cooperate with the YPG-dominated SDF, preferring to fight them rather than work with them.

After the Turkish-supported FSA wrested control of the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab, the rebels turned their sights on the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij. Rather than divert assets from the main fight against ISIS to defend Manbij against the Turkish-supported FSA, the Kurds and regime entered into a cooperative agreement whereby the Syrian army with Russian observers, and the SDF with American observers, exercised joint control over the area.

This rather clever maneuver effectively halted the Turkish-FSA advance almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah and contained them in a pocket from which they have been unable to move forward. (See numeral 1 on the map below.)

On the other hand, the SDF has already fought its way to the gates of al-Raqqah and is beginning to enter the city. See my earlier article, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

This tactical agreement in Manbij between the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and the U.S.-backed SDF may be a template for the future of Syria, or at least another step toward whatever political solution is found. For more on that, see Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

As on other battlefields in Syria, now that the two attacking forces have met west of al-Raqqah, what happens next?

Military situation in Syria  - click on image for larger view

In this particular situation, I expect that the regime and SDF will again attempt to cooperate. They both need to fight ISIS, not each other. The SDF wants to remove ISIS from al-Raqqah and the remainder of northern Syria, and the Syrian government wants to continue the push beyond al-Raqqah towards the besieged enclave at Dayr al-Zawr.

Given its proximity to Dayr al-Zawr, the SDF is in good position to assist in a relief operation for Dayr al-Zawr as well. At a minimum, they can allow Syrian government passage through SDF-controlled territory on the way to Dayr al-Zawr.

I am going to make a prediction here - my track record on predictions about Syria is fairly good (but not perfect). As I said, al-Raqqah will fall to the SDF. It will be neither easy nor quick, but it will happen. The residents of al-Raqqah, who will suffer in the fighting, eventually will be liberated.

I disagree with the Turkish and FSA position that the citizens of al-Raqqah will not welcome the SDF liberation of their city. What little information that comes out of the city indicates to me that the residents are so oppressed under ISIS rule that they would welcome virtually anyone who can free them from the radical Islamists.

That said, there is valid concern about the Kurds exercising governance over a traditionally Arab city. There have been reports that the SDF is considering allowing the city to be governed by the Syrian government, meaning of course the Bashar al-Asad regime. I believe and hope this is what will happen. I do not think the SDF is interested in governing reclaimed territories outside of the traditionally Kurdish area.

If an agreement between the SDF and the Syrian government is reached, it may set up a template for the future of Syria. We all know that at some point there will be a political solution to the situation in Syria. We also know that it will be the military situation that shapes that political solution. The military situation in northeastern Syria may provide a glimpse of just how that might coalesce.

After al-Raqqah, both the SDF and government will focus their attention on the Euphrates Valley, the city of Dayr al-Zawr and eliminating ISIS from Syria. This is an operation that is in the interests of both the SDF and the Syrian regime. The two have proven that they can cooperate when it is in their best interests. I have already cited the Manbij situation.

There are also Syrian government enclaves in the city of al-Qamishli, located on the Turkish border, and the city of al-Hasakah, located about 40 miles south of al-Qamishli. (See numeral 2 on the map above.) Both cities are surrounded by the SDF, yet there are virtually no hostilities between the two groups.

There are good reasons for an alliance between the SDF/YPG and the Syrian government. The Kurds are not advocating the removal of Bashar al-Asad. They would like to form an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria similar to that enjoyed by Iraq's Kurds. On the other side of the equation, the Syrian government could use the military support of the SDF in ridding Syria of ISIS.

An agreement between the SDF/YPG and the government does not solve the entire Syrian crisis, does not solve the civil war, but it could be a start.