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Trump’s Announcement of the Kurdish-Centric Plan to Take Raqqa

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On May 9th, the Trump administration made public its plan to provide the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with substantial heavy weaponry. The announcement signals Washington’s decision to rely on the SDF, which is dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), for the operation to liberate Raqqa from Islamic State (ISIS) control. Ankara’s reaction to this decision, as it was to the Obama administration’s similar conclusion, will be vociferous. Turkey views, with a good deal of justification, the PYD as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) affiliate in Syria. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for most of last 33 years. Your humble columnist dearly wishes he could be a fly on the wall listening to the upcoming meeting between Trump and Erdogan on May 16th. Mr. Trump nonetheless made the only right, and only real, choice for an administration that promised to defeat ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Going with Turkey for the Raqqa operation would have been a terrible choice. The Turks were never willing to send much of their army to Raqqa, their Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxies are not as good or proven fighters as the Kurds, the Turkish-aligned FSA are less numerous than the SDF/PYD, and in many cases they seem about as Islamist as ISIS. Turkish forces and their proxies would also have been fighting the Kurds all along the way to Raqqa. Naturally some policy elites in Washington appear intent on second guessing Mr. Trump’s decision on the matter. James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, argues in an April 10 Foreign Policy Magazine piece that the U.S. should have gone with Turkey on the Raqqa operation. Although this columnist has not seen any evidence for Mr. Jeffrey’s contention that local tribes want a Turkish role in the liberation of Raqqa, the rest of his argument deserves some scrutiny. Jeffrey argues that by focusing on the short-term tactical goal of destroying ISIS, the Americans are forgetting the more important strategic contest (which he likes to a “great game” of chess) going on in the area: Efforts by Turkey, Israel and other Arab Sunni states to push back against Iranian and Russian attempts to overthrow the regional order in the Levant. Jeffrey’s then goes on to draw a misleadingly simple tradeoff, where Washington can either 1) Fight ISIS without Turkey and let Iran and Russia win the larger game; or 2) Join Turkey against the Iranian-Russian attempt at hegemony in the Levant.  Mr. Jeffrey, like many American and Turkish policy makers, appears unable to see more than a two-dimensional game of chess. He works hard to argue that Turkey is an American ally while the PKK (and its Syrian PYD sister) are proxies of Iran, Assad and Russia. Things are a lot more complicated than that. Sometimes the PKK and these actors cooperate, while at other times they fight each other. To understand what the Iranians’ and Russians’ three-dimensional chess game looks like, in contrast, one need only ask how Iran, which Jeffrey himself acknowledges to be much less economically and militarily powerful than Turkey, enjoys so much leverage and influence outside its borders? Russia as well, with an economy the size of Australia’s, seems to punch in a foreign influence weight class far beyond its real size and power. The answer has to do with both Iran and Russia’s complex policies of supporting and working with various actors internationally, adroitly applying patronage and cooperation to maximum effect. Iraqis, for instance, know very well how Iran supports myriad groups in that country including various Shiite parties competing with one another, some Kurdish political parties and even Sunni Arab parties. When Iran thus wants to get something done in Iraq, it has a lot of often mutually hostile groups it can turn to. If something occurs in Iraq that Iran opposes (such as the 2012 no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Maliki), it can use its influence to overthrow the whole process. If the Americans, either by shrewd design or by accident, are to play a similarly high level of three-dimensional strategic chess in the Levant, they might well start with more support for the PYD at the same time that they remain NATO allies with Turkey. This seems especially wise given Turkey’s own ties with Jihadi groups in Syria and elsewhere (Jeffrey conveniently ignores the question of replacing ISIS with Jabhat al Nusra or Ahrar al Shams, which would hardly offer much of an improvement from the American point of view). In such a game, why couldn’t the U.S. support the PYD against ISIS and simultaneously oppose Iran? A simple rhetorical flourish might even do the trick: While leaders in Washington have repeatedly stated that American weapons given to the SDF/PYD must not end up in PKK hands or be used against Turkey, they never said anything about such weapons finding their way to the PKK’s Iranian branch, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). PJAK, of course, has been fighting a guerrilla war against the government in Tehran since 2004. This way, Ankara gets to keep supporting Hamas, Jabhat al Nusra (al Qaeda in Syria) and other American friends, while Washington can pursue its own Kurdish friendships outside of Turkey, and both can still pretend to be the best of friends at NATO summits — just like Turkey and Iran pretend to be friends at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

 

Iraq: ISIS attack on SDF and fleeing civilians kills over 30

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ISIS attack in an area held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria killed at least 32 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The attack on Rajm al-Salibi, the location of a checkpoint and refugee camp near the border with Iraq, led to fierce clashes, injuring dozens, the Britain-based war monitor said. The SDF has been battling ISIS since dawn in nearby areas of Hasaka province, which Kurdish forces largely control. An adviser to the SDF, Nasser Haj Mansour, confirmed that several civilians had died, including people fleeing ISIS in Syria’s Deir al-Zor and in Iraq. The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, has seized large swathes of northern Syria from Islamic State in a campaign to drive the jihadist group out of Raqqa city, its base of operations in Syria. This week, the SDF said it captured most of the strategic town of Tabqa, 40 km (25 miles) west of Raqqa along the Euphrates. The SDF said fighting continued on Tuesday to capture the last few districts of Tabqa as well as an adjacent dam, Syria’s largest.

U.S.-backed forces launch new attacks on Islamic State in Syria

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U.S.-backed forces fighting Islamic State in Syria launched a new phase of their offensive on Thursday, a statement said, but they have not yet begun to attack the militant group’s stronghold of Raqqa city in an apparent delay in the operation. But the fourth phase of the campaign aims to clear Islamic State pockets from the countryside north of the city, the SDF statement said. It did not say when the assault on Raqqa itself would begin. “We aim to liberate dozens of villages in the Wadi Jallab area and the northern countryside and clear the last obstacles in front of us to pave the way for the operation to liberate Raqqa city”, it added.

U.S. led coalition in Raqqa province, expanding a campaign by the Syrian Democratic Forces militias against ISIS

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The U.S.-led coalition has air-dropped U.S. and allied Syrian forces near Tabqa in Raqqa province, expanding a campaign by the Syrian Democratic Forces militias against Islamic State, the SDF said on Wednesday. The operation aims both to capture the al-Tabqa area, across the Euphrates from the SDF’s other main holdings, and to curb Syrian government advances in that direction, the SDF’s Raqqa campaign said in a statement on social media. The landing forces had seized four small villages in the area west of al-Tabqa and cut a main highway that links the provinces of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Aleppo, the SDF, a U.S.-backed alliance of militias added.

YPG, dominated SDF says it controls Manbij protected by U.S., led coalition, contradicts Russian claim

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The northern Syrian city of Manbij is under the protection of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate YPG, a YPG-linked militia group announced on Sunday, dismissing Russian claims that the city will be handed over to Assad regime. The statement came after Russian General Staff had claimed last Friday that an agreement was reached between the Assad regime and the YPG for the peaceful transfer of Manbij’s control to the Assad regime forces. “We in the Manbij Military Council confirm again that Manbij and its rural areas are under the protection of the Manbij Military Council and under the care of the international coalition and its protection”, the self-declared ”Manbij military council” of the terrorist-dominated SDF said. Turkey, which launched Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24 to back the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against terrorist groups [including the PYD/YPG and Daesh] alongside its Syrian border, successfully cleared Manbij from Daesh terrorists and declared last week that the next target would be to liberate YPG-controlled Manbij. Turkish Foreign Minister MevlütÇavuşoğlu said on March 2 that Turkey will strike the YPG if the latter does not withdraw from Manbij, which was promised to Turkey several times by the U.S. over the past months. Turkish authorities had welcomed the Russian statement that the Assad regime would take the control of Manbij, with Prime Minister BinaliYıldırım saying that Ankara was content over the regime replacing the PYD in Manbij.

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