On Raqqa, lots of questions with few answers

By Daniel DePetris

After months of internal discussions about the best way forward to recapture Raqqa from the Islamic State, the Trump administration has decided the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a coalition of Kurdish and Sunni Arab fighters—is the best mechanism to expel ISIS from the city in the shortest amount of time. And for the first time since the counter-ISIS campaign began nearly three years ago, the United States will arm the Kurdish component of the SDF coalition directly, something which has our NATO ally Turkey seething.

"Yesterday, the president authorized the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa,” the Pentagon said in a statement. "The SDF, partnered with enabling support from U.S. and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”

In purely military terms, the Pentagon is right: The SDF has proven to be a remarkably effective offensive force on the ground against a group in ISIS that only a few short years ago defeated several divisions of the Iraqi army for the entire world to see. The beginning of ISIS’s territorial contraction, in many ways, was when Kurdish fighters put up heroic resistance (with a big assist from the U.S. Air Force) in the border town of Kobane. Since that time, ISIS’s presence in northeast Syria has diminished exponentially.

Sending arms directly to the Kurds, however, isn’t as cut-and-dry as supporting the good guys over the bad guys. There are several questions U.S. officials haven’t fully sorted out yet, and if not managed properly, the Trump administration’s decision could cause a whole new slate of problems for the United States in the region:

What about the day after? ISIS will be defeated militarily in Raqqa. It will certainly be a bloody and complicated fight; the terrorist group has had years to prepare its defenses. The fact that Raqqa is the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate naturally means that ISIS fighters will be fierce and crafty in their defenses. Indeed, one need only look across the border into Mosul to see just how capable ISIS is, even in the face of an enemy that has a lot more fire power and an international coalition of allies on its side.

But if you wanted to play the odds, assuming the U.S.-supported SDF will retake Raqqa is a pretty safe bet to make. A far riskier bet is assuming there are sufficient plans about what to do once ISIS is driven out.

The SDF is already at work building a local civilian council to administer Raqqa when the all-clear is given, and SDF military officials seem confident that the city can transition swiftly from a jihadist bastion into a center of normalcy. This, though, will be far tougher than people expect.  There is likely to be internal squabbles that the council will find difficult to alleviate or resolve. The job of bringing public services back to the area, assisting in the re-location of tens of thousands of residents who previously fled the city, and adjudicating disputes among multiple egos can be frustrating for the best bureaucracy in the world, let alone a governing body that hasn’t been fully formed or tested yet.

Will the Kurds move on? There is little doubt in Washington that the Kurdish factions have proven their worth throughout the counter-ISIS campaign. The SDF would possess a figment of its combat power were it not for Kurdish assistance; it was the Kurds, not the Arabs, who dealt ISIS their first battlefield blow in Syria.

Raqqa, however, is a majority Sunni Arab city. Delivering weapons and ammunition into Kurdish hands makes sense from a purely military perspective, but it’s a dicey prospect politically. It is rational for the Kurds to be involved in some way with the Raqqa operation—they are an integral component of the SDF after all—but if there has been any preparation in Washington about how to manage the Kurdish-Arab dynamics within Raqqa itself, the U.S. government hasn’t told us about it. If for one reason or another Kurdish units of the SDF stay in the city longer than they are welcome, Raqqa’s post-ISIS future could degenerate into a contest between two ethnicities with their own histories, ambitions, and experiences.

For the sake of Raqqa’s stability, there better be a dispute mechanism available that is strong enough to act as a safety valve to resolve problems peacefully.

Can Turkey be convinced this is the right way to go? The Turks have outspokenly proclaimed the Syrian Kurds are terrorists, and the United States is making short-term arrangements with a Kurdish terrorist group in order to defeat a Sunni terrorist group.

Washington, of course, doesn’t see it that way; U.S. officials have repeatedly distinguished the Syrian Kurds as a separate entity from the PKK, a group that both Washington and Ankara label formally label as a terrorist group intent on using violence to attain Kurdish autonomy. 

The United States needs to find some way to convince the Turks that authorizing weapons to the Syrian Kurds won’t come back to haunt their own national security interests in the future. This may very well be impossible, and the Turks could respond in a variety of ways that would make the liberation of Raqqa more of a jigsaw puzzle than it already is.

What assurances can Washington provide to Ankara that would at least calm their nerves? Can Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan be pressured to hold his tongue? And will the Raqqa operation—and the Kurds central place in it—cause a further rupture in a U.S.-Turkey relationship that is already on thin ice?

Defense Secretary James Mattis was confident all of this will be resolved sooner or later. "We're going to sort it out. We'll figure out how we're going to do it.” To make a post-ISIS Raqqa a success, however, won’t be like winning a game of Connect 4. It will be like solving a Rubics cube that fights back—if it’s possible at all, it’s going to skill, smarts, patience, a lot of time and likely a lot of failure along the way.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear Defense on May 16, 2017. Read more HERE.