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Sunday, March 5, 2017
To seize Raqqa, Pentagon sees significant increase in US troops
The Pentagon is proposing to significantly increase US forces in Syria to support the Kurdish and Arab rebels against President Assad who have targeted the ISIS capital of Raqqa.
The troops would not be directly engaged in ground combat, according to the Pentagon. But since the plan to support the rebels includes US artillery fire, the troops would necessarily have to move closer to the fighting than they are now.
As with anything militarily having to do with Syria, there are "complications."
President Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to expand the fight against the militants in Syria, Iraq and beyond, received the plan Monday after giving the Pentagon 30 days to prepare it.
But in a conflict where nothing has been as simple as anticipated, the Raqqa offensive has already sparked new alliances. In just the past two days, U.S. forces intended for the Raqqa battle have had to detour to a town in northern Syria to head off a confrontation between two American allied forces - Turkish and Syrian Kurdish fighters. There, they have found themselves effectively side by side with Russian and Syrian government forces with the same apparent objective.
Approval of the Raqqa plan would effectively shut the door on Turkey's demands that Syrian Kurds, considered terrorists by Ankara, be denied U.S. equipment and kept out of the upcoming offensive. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that arming and including the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, in the operation is unacceptable and has vowed to move his own troops and Turkish-allied Syrian rebel forces toward Raqqa.
U.S. officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity about the still-secret planning, believe Erdogan's tough talk is motivated primarily by domestic politics, specifically a desire to bolster prospects for an April 16 nationwide referendum that would transform Turkey's governing system to give more power to the presidency.
While such talk is comforting, it may be irrelevant. Erdogan doesn't need success on the battlefield to finish his takeover of the Turkish state. He's already got most of the country's institutions on his side. Those that may have opposed him have been purged since the supposed coup attempt last year.
Erdogan genuinely hates the Kurds and doesn't think, much better of the US.
The United States had promised the Turks that Kurdish control would not extend to the west beyond the nearby Euphrates River, and Manbij was turned over to the Manbij Military Council, Arab fighters within the SDF. Kurdish police are in charge of local security, but the Americans have insisted that YPG fighters have largely left the scene.
Erdogan isn't buying and indeed, the situation is so confusing and fluid that determining who is fighting who and for what has become a genuine mystery to many on the ground in Syria.
Is there a chance for a military confrontation with NATO ally Turkey? If Turkey engages the Kurdish forces advancing on Raqqa - a possibility that Washington will look to head off but with no guarantee of success - the US may be forced to choose between their promises to the Kurds and their obligation to Erdogan's Turkey. Erdogan does not appear inclined to compromise at this point, which means that the Kurds will basically be on their own. The Arab rebels may even join the Turks in opposing the Kurds.
The prospect for one, gigantic mess outside of Raqqa among anti-Assad forces is real as President Assad and Iran keep their troops out of the fray, ready to move in on their own if necessary. It would be ironic if Assad was able to claim credit for the capture of the ISIS capital while the forces that oppose him squabble among themselves, unable to coordinate their actions.