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The Orton Report
February 17, 2017

Analysis: ‘Liberating Raqqa from the Islamic State’

by
Kyle Orton

As the new administration of Donald Trump works through the United States’ options in dealing with Syria, and the Islamic State (IS) specifically, one option apparently under consideration is the use of greater numbers of combat troops to accelerate the expulsion of IS from its Syrian capital, Raqqa. While more U.S. troops would undoubtedly hasten the collapse of IS’s grip on its urban strongholds in Syria, such a policy risks continuing the failed U.S. policies of the past six years in Syria that have tackled symptoms of the conflict, rather than its causes, have tried to tackle elements in isolation from the wider conflict, and have placed too great an emphasis on military progress over politics.

A CHANGE OF PLAN

President Barack Obama and his administration spent seven months deliberating over how to clear IS from Raqqa City and ultimately settled on a plan—without the time to implement it, according to its officials. This plan was handed over to the Trump administration.

The Obama plan had called for directly arming the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to enable a lightning strike against Raqqa City. Concurrently the U.S. would also deploy two or three Apache attack helicopters to Syria, and authorized the Pentagon to provide more support to Turkey’s Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD in its offensive against IS-held al-Bab.

The Trump team scrapped Obama’s plan within two weeks of taking office. “It seemed as though the Obama administration had delayed authorizing the plan because they knew it was inadequate and did not want to be held responsible, [a Trump administration] official said.” And perhaps he had a point.

THE KURDISH STICKING POINT

Both the YPG and PYD are—despite U.S. protests to the contrary—fully integrated components of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States,[1] the European Union, and Turkey. Though of primary importance to Turkey, against which the PKK has run a decades-long insurgency, the PKK’s support systems are a menace to European security and law-enforcement because, as John Schindler, a former counterintelligence officer for the National Security Agency put it to me, the PKK run both terrorism and organized crime operations in Europe that are “difficult, when not impossible, to differentiate” for the simple reason that “PKK logistics cells supporting terror are criminals”.

The U.S.’s favourability toward the PYD/YPG as its primary anti-IS ground instrument in Syria has been a running dispute inside Syria, given that the territory IS holds is populated by Arabs and the U.S.-led Coalition has been enabling the YPG to conquer it, and with NATO ally Turkey, which cannot abide a statelet all along its border that provides safe-haven for the terrorists who constitute one of its most serious internal security threats. For Ankara, despite its recent rapprochement with Russia, the creation of a statelet run by a group with deep ties to Moscow that would internationalize an internal political matter is likewise intolerable. The Obama plan had no serious discussion of how to mollify the Turks.

The U.S. currently does not officially provide arms and ammunition to the YPG. Officially, the U.S. supports the much-contested Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), though even the U.S. does not deny that the YPG is the dominant force within the SDF. There is also no doubt that weapons seep through this membrane to the YPG, though how much is contested. A recent example was the sending of armoured vehicles to the SDF. A Kurdish official told Reuters this was part of the U.S.-backed plan to take Raqqa; both the U.S. and PYD denied that this new class of weapons had been given to the YPG.

THE PYD REGIME AND THE WESTERN PRESS

The problem of enabling the YPG to conquer Arab territory as a means of diminishing IS’s territorial control is long-standing. The PYD was widely distrusted by Arabs to begin with and its record since it began capturing Arab-majority areas, notably Tel Abyad, has only reinforced this. The PYD expelled large numbers of Arabs during combat—which happens in all military zones—and then prevented many Arabs’ return, while ruling over those who did remain in a harshly repressive manner.[2] Some of the rougher measures toward Arabs are passed off by the PYD as security measures to guard against IS sleeper cells; this would not explain the PYD’s treatment of Assyrian Christians.

Though the PYD often claims to have come up with a new model of governance, in reality the PYD inherited a state structure from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with which it maintains a posture of co-existence and intermittent co-operation, despite occasional clashes at the margins to delineate spheres of influence.[3] There has been a distinct lack of Western coverage of the PYD’s misbehaviour and indeed a good deal of pro-PYD coverage, frequently tipping over into outright propaganda.[4]

Rebecca West once wrote of the “persons … of humanitarian … disposition [who] constantly went out to the Balkan peninsula … [and] came back with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally massacree and never massacrer.” That is not all that is happening here, however. As Rana Marcel Khalaf recently pointed out in a paper on the PYD’s attempt to legitimize its governance, internally and externally, the PYD has dedicated enormous resources to image management in both the traditional and the newer social-media-type news platforms.

The PYD has set up a media network from Riyadh and Moscow all the way through Europe and its spokesmen—whether official, unofficial, or somewhere in between—push a similar set of themes, “appeal[ing] to international audiences by presenting its fight against ISIS as a battle between universal liberal values and extremism,” Khalaf writes. This presentation of the PYD/YPG in Western-style terms as secular, liberal, and democratic, is accompanied by a particular stress on the presence of women, which is often contrasted with a rebellion that includes conservative segments of Syrian society. PYD/YPG operatives contend that YPG is the only reliable force to fight IS, and frequently they agitate against Turkey and its allies by accusing them of being pro-IS. This accusation has even been made against Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, an activist group that has paid a steep price in blood for its resistance against IS, a worrying indicator of how the YPG will treat political dissidents if it occupies Raqqa.

That the PYD plays on Kurdish nationalism internally to recruit and hold its social base, writes Khalaf, is among the reasons the PYD so strictly regulates media output from inside “Rojava”: managing these contradictory narratives for its various audiences takes effort and skill—and the PYD has shown itself equal to the challenge.[5]

SQUARING THE CIRCLE

One means of circumventing the contradictions in an anti-IS policy that enabled an actor seen locally as illegitimate to take over areas where illegitimate governance had given rise to IS in the first place was a U.S. promise to use the YPG forces only to clear areas, and to leave Arabs to run their own affairs after IS was gone. These reassurances allowed Turkey to back the Minbij offensive. The YPG promptly broke its word and began moving north toward the Turkish border, triggering the Turkish intervention in August to push both the PKK and IS away from Turkey’s border and to prevent the formation of a maximalist PYD-run statelet.[6]

The U.S. has also tried to argue, since it has recognized (at least rhetorically) that local forces will be needed to sustainably hold territory and keep IS out, that it can blunt the YPG’s influence under the SDF rubric by recruiting Arab fighters to the SDF. In December, the U.S. claimed that 13,000 of the 45,000 SDF troops were Arabs. There is also a local tribal force led by Ahmad al-Jarba, a helpful addition for the Coalition given the profound distrust of most of the local tribes about the PYD’s intentions.

One can accept the numbers or not, but the method of their recruitment leaves doubts about whether they will fulfil the stated purpose of diluting the YPG’s power. The YPG has consistently and deliberately kept the Arab detachments under the SDF banner weak and dependent. Moreover, at the U.S. training centre for the Arab SDF in Tel Abyad, recruits are screened by the YPG and “must learn and embrace the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan,” the leader of the PKK. “If we did not agree, we would not be in training now,” one recruit noted. YPG instructors also made clear that they intended to deploy the Arab SDF not to Raqqa against IS, but west to Aleppo against “terrorist Turkey” and its local proxies.

The YPG, in short, has turned this model on its head and co-opted Arabs as force multipliers, politically appeasing the U.S. to maintain the air support, without which the over-stretched YPG would be in real trouble, while vitiating the U.S. strategy, using Arabs to provide more acceptable local administrators for their own regime. The YPG has allowed ethnic pluralism in order to secure a politico-military monopoly.

NEW PLAN?

One of the Trump administration’s first tasks on taking office was to reassess the balance between Turkey and the PKK as components of the U.S. counter-IS strategy. One “point of discussion“—as opposed to a formal proposal—before President Trump is to increase the number of U.S. troops in Syria and have them move from advise-and-assist to a combat role.

“The plan makes perfect sense if it means an American force will compensate for the lack of professional forces to fight in one of the most important battles against ISIS,” says Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. “Syrian forces, whether the Kurdish militias or the Arab rebels, lack a force like Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service that has spearheaded the battle of Mosul. Raqqa might be easier but it will mostly likely be deadly for militias, however battle-hardened they are. … So, I believe it’s necessary and inevitable, but it could be just extra forces added to the pre-existing so-called advisors inside Syria.”

Jennifer Cafarella, the Lead Intelligence Planner at the Institute for the Study of War, agrees with this assessment. “American leadership and likely some American military force will be necessary to reset trends in Syria that currently point to escalating regional war and sustained global attack campaigns by ISIS and al-Qaeda,” Cafarella tells me. But Cafarella cautions against viewing the war solely through the IS prism, given that threats in Syria also include al-Qaeda and the Iranian revolution—both of whom will respond to any Western action—and that Western security ultimately involves finding a way to end the violence and allow the refugees to return home. “The first question President Trump must answer is whether he will continue the Obama policy of remaining myopically focused on the anti-ISIS fight or if he will broaden the scope of American policy to accomplish wider strategic interests,” Cafarella concludes. “Only then is it appropriate to consider options for the use of American force.”

And there is the problem. Though the U.S. review is only in the early stages, it seems clear that the administration is putting its emphasis on fighting IS. The concepts of the still-forming Trump administrations, from defeating IS in Raqqa to safe zones—concepts that are (or could be) linked—are still inchoate, and there does seem to be some consideration about how to defeat IS: the addition of U.S. troops would partly be a means of reassuring Turkey that the PKK will not do any further damage to her interests. But even that is within the framework of determining when IS will be defeated.

Already, thanks in part to mistakes in the campaign against IS, specifically the use of the PKK in Syria and the Iranian proxy militias in Iraq, IS has been able to transform into a global movement that will outlast the caliphate. A chance existed, had the correct forces been mobilized, to diminish IS ideologically as well as militarily in this campaign. That chance is now largely gone and IS will survive for many years, able to guide its secret soldiers in our own countries from cyberspace. It is still possible to seriously degrade IS and keep it down so that it is only a marginal threat to the governance structures in Iraq and Syria, but there would have to be some governance structures to put in its place.

Which comes back to the Turkey-PKK question and the second-order political and military effects of ejecting IS from its cities in Syria that mean defeating IS is not simply about IS.

THE OPTIONS GOING FORWARD

The PYD/YPG have already begun shaping operations around Raqqa City and are the force positioned to attack quickly, if that is the decision. The cost in blood to the YPG of an invasion of Raqqa City would likely be high, even if they are accompanied by U.S. combat troops. The YPG does not have an interest in going into Raqqa City, let alone ruling it, but will do so to acquire the political prestige in the West that will lead to the recognition of its statelet in Syria.

U.S. support for the SDF has strained U.S.-Turkish relations. If the U.S. openly arms the YPG, it will further damage relations with Turkey, and strengthen the internal trend toward autocracy in Turkey, which is partly reliant on anti-Americanism, especially after the coup attempt. Given Turkey’s importance to U.S. interests in the Middle East and the security of Europe’s southern flank, this is a large risk to take to secure the friendship of an organization whose own feelings toward the U.S. are questionable and which is in turn opposed by all other U.S. allies because it is a revisionist actor.

The YPG option also suffers the defect of the direct use of American troops: once IS is expelled, a suitable local force will have to be constructed anyway, to be left in place. So why not build the force first? Avoid the political hornets’ nest of American “boots on the ground” and American casualties; train and equip a force motivated as no other can be: by the fight for its own land.

It should also be noted that a YPG takeover of Raqqa City, where the local population is hostile to the YPG, would exacerbate Kurdish-Arab tensions, which could flare into another sub-conflict in Syria—assisting IS along the way. A YPG occupation of the city would certainly allow IS political space to move, and a rapid YPG withdrawal after removing IS would, in the current conditions, with no serious local force to replace it, allow IS military space to move. The removal of IS without a competent, legitimate local authority to replace it might also allow Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s refashioned presence in Syria which is under increased Coalition pressure in north-west Syria, the ability to re-infiltrate eastern Syria, where it once had its most powerful local branch, and HTS’ efforts will be assisted by an inflamed ethnic conflict, whether violent or political.[7]

The other alternative is to delay the Raqqa offensive, which does allow IS increased time to dig in and to plot external terrorism, and to build the local forces to both liberate the city and then to govern it in a way that sustainably suppresses IS. This would mean coordinating the offensive with Turkey, which has the most useful allies among the rebellion. This does not mean abandoning the YPG; rather it means confining the YPG to the Kurdish-majority areas. While it is perhaps unwise for the U.S. to get further enmeshed politically with the PYD, the U.S. could guarantee support for some form of autonomy for Syria’s Kurds in a final settlement as a point of leverage to have the PYD/YPG grant more political openness.

TURKEY: OPPORTUNITIES AND RISKS

Whichever way this goes, providing more support to the Turkish-led offensive against IS-held al-Bab, 100 miles west of Raqqa, IS’s last major city in Syria apart from its capital, makes sense, either to increase Turkey’s spare capacity for a Raqqa Operation or to politically appease Ankara if the U.S. backs the YPG into Raqqa.

The frontlines for Turkey and its rebel allies, the PKK, the pro-Assad coalition, and IS all intersect around al-Bab.

IS’s Amn al-Kharji, the foreign intelligence branch that directs the attacks around the world, which was overseen by the caliph’s recently-deceased deputy, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), is headquartered in al-Bab. For Turkey, in addition to securing its de facto safe zone from IS, having its allies take al-Bab is necessary to avoid it falling into the hands of the PKK. If the PKK takes al-Bab, it will have its contiguous statelet from Hasaka to Efrin on the Syria-Turkey border.

Turkey has repeatedly expressed its desire to go onto Raqqa after al-Bab. Whether Ankara truly intends to move from al-Bab to Raqqa—another idea being floated by the Turkish General Staff at the end of last year was to come at Raqqa through Tel Abyad—the pro-Assad coalition took the proposal seriously enough that, led by Iran, it is pursuing a ground operation toward al-Bab from the south to cut off the pass. The regime coalition sees the political utility that the PKK does in being involved in Raqqa, in Damascus’ case as a means of international rehabilitation, to present itself as a partner against the terrorists whose rise it enabled.

The U.S. delayed support to Ankara in al-Bab for the sake of guarantees that the Turks would not use such assistance against the SDF/YPG. This led to Ankara turning to Russia, which has, with some hiccups, provided airstrikes, seeing yet another chance to divide NATO and to create a further dependency in Turkey’s Syria policy. Moscow, of course, continues to provide airstrikes to the pro-Assad coalition’s advance, too, hedging its bets. Pulling Ankara out of Moscow’s orbit is a profound Western interest, and being a better source of support in al-Bab could assist in that aim.

Turkey’s control of the insurgency in northern Syria has markedly increased in recent months, and Ankara is also training Arab forces, ostensibly for involvement in the Raqqa Operation. U.S. officials have been dismissive of Turkey’s offer to contribute forces to the Raqqa offensive as a “unicorn army,” and thus far this has proven correct. The struggle of Turkey’s Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD to mobilize enough rebel allies—currently estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000—and their predictable struggle in al-Bab, even buttressed by Turkish Special Forces and regular troops, has added further scepticism about Turkey’s ability, never mind its will, to push IS from Raqqa.[8]

The comparison is often made to the YPG, which does indeed have greater unity than the rebellion because of its powerful ideology, and also has greater tactical ability since it is staffed in large proportion by veterans of decades of conflict with a NATO army. The YPG has also had two-and-a-half years protected by a de facto Western no-fly zone and close-air support, which have provided cumulative strategic benefits denied to the rebellion. But this is only to restate the short-comings of a U.S. policy that struck an erroneous balance in the local actors it supported. The capacity of Turkey and the rebellion are not going to improve over time if left alone; if a decision was made to support a Turkish-backed effort to dislodge IS from Raqqa, the U.S. can then act to build up the forces to accomplish it.

Concurrently, it is vital to bear in mind that Turkey has a lot of ability, if the U.S. began arming the YPG and announced its intention to support the YPG going into Raqqa, to destabilize such a project, whether by supporting Arab elements chafing at PYD rule or by direct military attack on the YPG/SDF, in the west near the frontlines around Tel Rifaat and Minbij or potentially in the east by a move against Tel Abyad.

SUMMING UP

A significant part of the calculation on how to defeat IS in Raqqa rests on the question of the U.S.’s posture toward the armed opposition, about whom Trump has expressed negative sentiments. If the President re-assesses his view that the opposition are too weak and extreme to be worthy of engagement, it leaves the U.S. a possible—if difficult—path to lasting victory against jihadism in eastern Syria.

It is a heavy lift, but if U.S. force was injected in support an effort, in coordination with Turkey, to displace IS from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor with Arab rebels, local resistance, and tribal elements, and this administration was then protected afterwards, the U.S. can sustainably defeat IS and ensure that the vacuum that follows IS’s fall is not filled by other jihadists like al-Qaeda. As with the Surge, more troops is not the key; how they are used is. This would create effectively a safe-zone that secures some vital Western interests in Syria’s fragmented landscape. And it could allow the fulfilment of the broader Western interest in eliminating the threats emanating from Syria, something only possible by stabilizing the country. The protectorate in the east could allow the opposition space to form a true alternative government and a place of refuge for defectors. Such a structure on Syrian soil—perhaps with limited kinetic actions against the regime to complicate its policy of mass-atrocities—could alter the terms such that it provides the basis for meaningful negotiations with the regime to bring about a final settlement.

The option of siding with the regime coalition does not exist. A heavy political price and ultimately a security one would be paid for buttressing a regime guilty of crimes against humanity on this scale. Morality aside, the regime simply does not have the capacity to pacify the country, specifically those parts where IS operates, even with its cruel and indiscriminate tactics. Moreover, the Trump administration is committed to containing the influence of Iran, which is in control of large parts of the regime’s security sector. The apparent plan to contain Tehran by splitting Russia away from the pro-Assad coalition will soon be seen as folly, as will the belief Russia is committed in a serious way against IS.

The only other option would be to repeat what happened last time: withdraw quickly after an increased commitment liberates cities under IS rule, allowing chaos and radicalism to rise again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

[1] The U.S. partnership with the YPG/PKK began in late 2014 after the battle of Kobani. Until that point, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) had listed the PYD as the Syrian wing of the PKK; that description was quietly removed later.

[2] The PYD claims to govern by “Democratic Confederalism,” the brainchild of the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan (Apo), a confection of Anarchism (“democracy without a state,” in Ocalan’s words), anti-capitalism, environmentalism, and feminism. In practice the PYD’s rule has resembled the one-party autocracy of the PKK’s former sponsor in the Soviet Union. Many PYD critics have remarked on the cosmetic nature of the change from the cult of personality of the Ba’ath regime to the PYD/PKK dispensation that: “Bashar al-Assad’s picture was removed to be replaced by Ocalan’s”.

In PYD areas, any protest or political activity “needs a permission from the local administration” and the Kurdish opposition’s failure to heed this has led to continuous attacks on their offices and anti-PYD demonstrations being fired upon; opponents are arrested, tortured, expelled under threats of murder, and worse; and the independent media is ruthlessly suppressed, with any information released except through the PYD Media Centre treated as “an attempt to deliver information to terrorists”. Even the conscription, which includes child-soldiers, is now a feature of life in regime-held areas as the decay of the state worsens. Even the Assad regime’s gruesome celebrations over those it has killed have been replicated by the PYD. The main changes to the methods of governance the PYD brought are the change of curriculum for the indoctrination of the young in the schools.

[3] The PYD has continued to receive resources, notably salaries for its bureaucracy, from the Assad regime and its alignment with the pro-Assad coalition was especially notable during the conquest of Aleppo City, when the PYD helped close the siege on the rebel-held areas and then helped to expel the rebels. But it goes back to the beginning of the uprising when the PYD was accused of assassinating anti-regime Kurdish leaders—the PYD itself joined what is sometimes called the “pro-Damascus opposition”—and the regime pullout of the Kurdish areas in July 2012 was very specific about leaving the PYD in control to keep those areas out of the insurrection against it.

The support of the Iranian revolution for the PYD was once admitted by the PYD leader himself and U.S. intelligence has detected the PYD’s contacts with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as part of the YPG’s coordination with the regime coalition. The PYD’s political links with Russia are becoming increasingly public, but they have been clear for some time, and the military connection was visible before that. As early as December 2015, the PYD offensive on the Tishreen Dam—west of the Turkish red line on the Euphrates River—was enabled by Russian airstrikes; this happened again in the spring of 2016 when the PYD got Moscow’s assistance to attack Western allies in Syria. Russian trainers are also said to be deployed with elements of the PYD/YPG.

The PYD’s alignment with the pro-Assad coalition can be regarded as tactical: despite a long history of being an asset for various components of the coalition, the PYD is in a much stronger bargaining position now and does have its own agenda, namely state-building. While Russia appears to regard the PYD as useful over the long-term—potentially even as a balance against the Assad regime’s more ambitious intentions, as well as a political-military weapon against a NATO state and the U.S.’s interests in Syria—it is apparent that the PYD’s and the regime’s ultimate goals are incompatible. After the PYD assisted in the devastation of Aleppo City, for example, the regime immediately said that the YPG would have to join the state security services or be attacked. In February 2016, Assad’s Foreign Minister, Bashar Jaafari, suggested those who wanted autonomy or federalism should take a Panadol. When this discussion surfaced again last month, Jaafari suggested that the PYD “take a stronger medicine, like Advil.”

[4] In just the last week there has been a wholly uncritical interview given to a British woman and a rather romantic profile of an American man who became foreign fighters—or at least media activists—for the PYD/YPG. Shortly before that the conservative magazine National Review hosted Macer Gifford, a British man who went to fight with the YPG and now helps promote their cause in the West. This continues a pattern of Western outlets allowing space to operatives of groups on legal blacklists.

A concurrent controversy blew up when Roy Gutman actually did report critically on the war crimes, including ethnic cleansing, committed by the PYD and their running of a deeply authoritarian government in northern Syria. There were wholly legitimate criticisms to be made of aspects of what Gutman had to say, though the substance of his reporting remained intact. But most of the criticism was not about substance: Gutman was accused of being in the pay of the Turkish government, of being an anti-Kurdish racist, supporting “al-Qaeda rebels,” and so forth. Character assassination, in other words. On the rare occasions criticism is levelled at the PYD in the Western media, invective of this sort generally follows.

It is difficult to know for sure but perhaps because of this public fuss, some of the Yekiti Party members associated with the Kurdish National Council who had been kidnapped by the PYD were released.

Anti-PKK/PYD cartoon, playing off the group's demand to free convicted terrorist Abdullah Ocalan while locking up its peaceful political foes

Anti-PKK/PYD cartoon, playing off the group’s demand to free convicted terrorist Abdullah Ocalan while locking up its peaceful political foes

[5] Being the PKK, the PYD/YPG does also does bizarre things as part of its media-political strategy. In Minbij on Sunday, Arabs were turned out onto the streets by the PYD authorities to demonstrate for the release of Ocalan. Presumably the message was: Arabs love rule by the PYD. If one was not already pro-PYD, however, the message received was: the PYD has such strict control it can make Arabs demonstrate for Ocalan.

[6] The ethnically Kurdish components of the YPG have formally withdrawn from Minbij now but the city remains in the hands of the Minbij Military Council run by Arab SDF units, ideologically and structurally tied to the YPG, who are often referred to, crudely, as “Kurdified Arabs”. Turkey makes no distinction between the YPG and its dependent Arab units, and has vowed any number of times that Turkey will take Minbij once they are finished in al-Bab.

[7] IS is very effective at neutralizing Islamist rivals in the areas it controls and its removal without a fully-formed authority to replace it might yet prove to be an opening for al-Qaeda in Iraq, too. In September 2015, Tehran released Khaled al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassam), a long-time al-Qaeda operative and close associate of IS’s founder, who it was believed might be charged with reintroducing al-Qaeda to Iraq. And, in August 2016, al-Qaeda’s leader called for his troops to prepare for a protracted campaign to bring down the Iranian-influenced and Shi’a-led Iraqi government.

[8] It transpires that just as this was being published, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was speaking to the Munich conference and, though he disavowed a “direct” Turkish role in the Raqqa Operation, said Turkey would work with the U.S. through “local forces, civilian forces, the FSA, and other militias” to liberate Raqqa from IS. (Yildirim also said there would be “serious issues” for U.S.-Turkey relations if Washington supported the YPG/PKK in moving against Raqqa City, and again linked this to the non-extradition of Gulen, hinting that the U.S. is in some way colluding with anti-Turkish terrorism.) Hurriyet added to this that on 17 February at Incirlik the Turkish military chief Hulusi Akar presented two Raqqa road maps to his U.S. counterpart Joseph Dunford. Turkey’s preferred option is to move the short way to Raqqa, through the border-crossing near Tel Abyad, with the U.S. convincing the YPG to clear a gap through its territory so Turkey-backed Arab rebels can strike at IS’s Syrian capital sixty miles to the south. “Yildirim said Turkish forces would not be directly involved in combat but would provide tactical support. Both the Turkish and U.S. military would have a ground presence, he added.” The second alternative was to go through al-Bab and then march 110 miles over sometimes-mountainous terrain to Raqqa City.

Post has been updated