Syria: will fall of Raqqa widen war?
It seems to have finally come to open war between the Rojava Kurds and the Turkish intervention force in Syria. The People's Protection Units (YPG) and allied factions of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have sent reinforcements to the northern countryside of Aleppo governorate to impede the Turkish progress towards Afrin district. "The YPG and SDF today deployed more forces and armored vehicles in northern Aleppo," a YPG officer told the independent Kurdish ARA News June 29. "The Kurdish people in Afrin region have suffered a lot under heavy bombardment by Turkey and allied Islamists." Clashes are already reported bewteen the two sides. But in another sign of shifting alliances, the Assad regime is reported to have sent troops to block the way of the YPG-SDF reinforcements. This is clear evidence that the tactical alliance between the Kurds and Assad is now severely strained if not entirely broken. It may even indicate Assad has acquiesced in establishment of a Turkish buffer zone in northern Syria under Russian pressure. (More at Zaman al-wsl, June 28; ANF, June 22)
It also further complicates the US plan to use the SDF to take Raqqa from ISIS. The campaign for Raqqa, code-named Operation Wrath of Euphrates under the umbrella of the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, began last November and is now entering its endgame. Some 30 countries are working under US leadership as the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. But CJTF member and longtime US ally Turkey is unlikely to accept Raqqa long being held by the SDF. Now perahps the Assad regime will also be unwilling to do so. In March, the Manbij Military Council, a predominantly Arab group that had been set up to take over security from the SDF, turned over a vast area west of Manbij to Assad regime forces. The transfer, done at the urging of the US, was ostensibly to create a buffer zone between the SDF and Turkish backed rebels. A repeat of this in Raqqa would be a grave betrayal of the city's inhabitants. However distrustful they are of the SDF, being back under Assad rule would hardly be better than ISIS. (Military.com, June 26)
Robert Ford, who served as US envoy to Syria under President Obama, warns that the US inevitably "will betray the Kurds." Washington "will not defend the Kurds against Assad's forces," he told London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. "What we're doing with the Kurds is not only politically stupid, but immoral. Syrian Kurds are making their biggest mistake in trusting the Americans."
A countervailing view was offered by Washington-based analyst Nicholas A. Heras of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who told ARA News that the US will keep supporting the Kurds in Syria. "All signs point to the US military planning to maintain a forward operating presence in Syria in SDF-controlled areas," he said. "My assessment is that the US military will be in Syria at least through 2021."
But how long the US stays and whether it continues to back the Kurds are two different questions, and Heras failed to address the international pressure Washington is coming under to betray the Kurds. If the SDF are attacked by Assad, the US will be forced to choose sides—and given Washington's tilt to Assad in the Syrian war, it is far from cleat it will choose the SDF. Especially if both Turkey and Russia are urging the Kurds' betrayal.
In any event, the imminent taking of Raqqa almost certainly portends a multi-sided scramble for former ISIS territory.
And the CJTF-led campaign for ISIS-held Mosul in northern Iraq is simultaneoulsy approaching an endgame, which promises to be just as messy. Here Kurdish Peshmerga forces are allied with Iraq's national army—but are clearly at odds over the Iraqi Kurds' now open aspirations for independence. And the Iraqi army is meanwhile using Iran-backed Shi'ite paramilitary forces—while the US is practically at war with Iranian-led forces in Syria. (Military.com, June 26)