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American ground forces are getting more deeply entangled in Syria as the offensive to push the Islamic State (IS) out of its de facto capital city, Raqqa, approaches. It remains unclear exactly which actors in Syria these troops will be assisting, though there are more and more indications that their mission will redound to the benefit of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allies, Iran and Russia.
MORE AMERICAN TROOPS ENTER THE FRAY
The Washington Post reported on 8 March that American Marines have been deployed in Syria. The Marines, from an artillery unit, are part of a new 400-man deployment with Army Rangers that nearly doubles the number of U.S. ground forces in Syria and marks the first official insertion of conventional soldiers in the country. There is a formal cap of 503 U.S. troops in Syria, but this can be waived.
The first U.S. ground troops in Syria came in April 2016, when President Barack Obama authorized up to 300 Special Operations Forces into Syria. In December 2016, an additional 200 SOFs were deployed, bringing the theoretical total of SOFs in-country at any one time to 500. These SOFs were accompanied, unofficially, by a small number of conventional troops. So far “a small number of conventional soldiers have supported Special Operations troops on the ground in Syria, including through a truck-mounted system known as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS,” The Post reports. The new batch of Marines and their M-777 Howitzers “will supplement, rather than replace, those Army units.” To operate these artillery systems, the Marines will have to be within about twenty miles of Raqqa City.
In addition to the Marine base near Raqqa, the U.S. has taken control of the Rmaylan airfield in Hasaka Province, turning it into an airbase, and has now completed the setting up of Forward Operating Base THOMAS, a logistics hub near Kobani. The U.S. also has a Special Operations base near Minbij and several training centres throughout areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The construction of this base near Raqqa and the planned role for the Marines is a replication of what was done in Iraq. The U.S. base near Mosul was originally named Fire Base Bell, and became public on 19 March 2016 when IS fired rockets at it, killing Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin and injuring four other Marines.
The Post also reports that the new plan envisions more U.S. SOFs, and some more attack helicopters.
At the end of February, Defence Secretary James Mattis handed his thirty-day review of U.S. policy to President Trump, though this does not seem to have affected policy yet. A defence official tells The Post that “the Marines’ movement into Syria was not the byproduct of President Trump’s request for a new plan to take on the Islamic State but that it had ‘been in the works for some time’.”
It appears that, having initially rejected President Obama’s strategy of directly arming the Kurdish YPG/PKK and supporting an operation led by them to seize Raqqa, on the grounds that previous administration “knew it was inadequate and did not want to be held responsible [when it failed],” the Trump administration is now adopting that plan.
There are clear divisions within the administration, with some taking seriously the objections of NATO ally Turkey to enabling a YPG capture of Raqqa City, objections that, if ignored, would lead relations with this important strategic partner to be “seriously undermined and damaged“. Some simply want to wait until after the 16 April referendum in Turkey, which will grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greater executive authority, before arming the YPG, knowing that doing so before then creates a dangerous political incentive for Ankara to move against the YPG, particularly in Minbij.
THE MINBIJ STANDOFF
The YPG, backed by the U.S., took over Minbij in August 2016. The YPG was supposed to withdraw and leave the city to be run by local Arabs. Instead the YPG used Minbij as a launch-pad for an offensive toward Jarabulus on the Turkish border, triggering Turkey’s intervention, Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD (OES), to push both the YPG and IS away from its frontiers. The YPG has now ostensibly withdrawn from Minbij, leaving it in the hands of its Arab proxies, the Minbij Military Council (MMC). Turkey has repeatedly threatened that it would push the YPG out of Minbij after al-Bab was cleared.
To prevent the Turks making good on this, on 4 March, after a day of heavy clashes between the Turks and the YPG, the U.S. confirmed that it had placed a detachment of soldiers in Minbij along the Sajur river, which is what led to The Post discovering the expanded scope of conventional U.S. forces in Syria. The U.S. mission in Minbij was phrased as reassuring coalition members, ensuring the removal of the YPG (an untruth so brazen its purpose is hard to understand), and keeping the focus on IS.
This was an extraordinary development. In military terms, it is the first use of U.S. troops to enforce a ceasefire between warring factions in Syria. In political terms, this clash—an entirely predictable development—was born out of a U.S. overbalancing in favour of the YPG, and now the U.S. is shielding the Syrian branch of a registered terrorist organisation from a NATO member. What is even more extraordinary is that the U.S. is keeping its NATO ally out of Minbij in alliance with Russia.
Earlier in the day on Saturday, the MMC publicly welcomed a Russian convoy, which contained both humanitarian supplies and “some armoured equipment,” and raised the Russian flag alongside its own. A day earlier, 3 March, the MMC/PKK made a deal, mediated by the Russians, to hand over areas west of Minbij to the Assad regime. This was later partially denied in a statement that nonetheless reaffirmed that some areas west of Minbij had been given to the pro-Assad coalition in order to create a buffer against Turkey. Since then, members of the MMC have been reflagged as part of the regime’s National Defence Force militia, acting as border guards.
The Russians support a U.S.-backed, YPG-led offensive against Raqqa as quickly as possible, and thus do not want the YPG pulled away from Raqqa by a Turkish attack on Minbij. Russia might be mending relations with Turkey, but Moscow has still supported the Assad/Iran offensive south of al-Bab to hem in OES and prevent OES being extended to Raqqa. Among the reasons Moscow supports the U.S./YPG course is that it believes—as do some in the U.S.—that the Minbij model is the future: the YPG, with American support, will eject IS, and then hand over the Arab-majority areas to a pro-Assad coalition that is incapable of clearing them on its own. This option would find reluctant favour with Turkey, too: though Ankara formally retains an anti-Assad posture, when push comes to shove it would prefer the regime coalition to control territory rather than the YPG.
That said, a statement from the Turkish government yesterday suggested it was neither reassured nor deterred by the U.S. presence in Minbij and would dislodge the YPG/PKK if and when it felt it necessary. Turkey continues, as well, to keep open the option of an assault on Tel Abyad. Such bombast has been heard many times before and proven empty, though it should be noted that Ankara knows that this time it is approaching its very last chance to change the trajectory of U.S. policy in Syria, and all attempts at doing that by diplomacy have so far proven futile.
AMERICA TO ENABLE ASSAD’S “VICTORY”?
This convergence of American actions with Russian-Iranian-Assadist interests is hardly a first in Syria, but the U.S. appears less and less concerned about a public alignment with the pro-regime coalition.
On 2 March, the regime coalition re-captured Palmyra. IS had taken Palmyra in December as the pro-Assad coalition conquered the rebel-held areas of Aleppo City by massacre and deportation. Despite its best efforts, the regime coalition simply could not fight on two fronts. What changed? The U.S.-led Coalition provided airstrikes this time.
An end-game is now hoving into view where the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces clear areas of IS, which are then handed over to the regime coalition in Russian-mediated deals. In this scenario, the U.S. would avoid a long-term entanglement in Syria akin to a Mandate and the YPG would be allowed to keep its control of north-eastern Syria. The Assad regime is ideologically-politically opposed to federalism, but prior agreements have been reached and it is possible to imagine some kind of cold peace—at least in the short-term, given that the regime is unable, for now, to take back the YPG-run areas.
After Mosul and Raqqa City fall, IS will gather—as it has already begun to—in the deserts and small towns along the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor and Anbar Province. Clearing out this area that IS calls Wilayat al-Furat (Euphrates Province) is necessary to defeat IS for good. The YPG does not have the forces to take over all of eastern Syria and the Assad regime has proven incapable of projecting into eastern Syria. But with the end of the Mosul operation in the not-too-distant future it is possible to envision Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) moving more of its Iraqi Shi’a jihadist proxies across the border to attempt this task. Logistically, IRGC-QF has made preparations for this, consolidating a hold in western Iraq, particularly by securing relations with the PKK, a historical ally that has proxies among the Yazidis in the Sinjar border area.
The Iraqi IRGC-QF militias were, with Lebanese Hizballah and many other foreigners, mobilized by Iran in an international Shi’a jihad that rescued Assad in 2013. The IRGC-QF is a designated terrorist organization—as recently as 2011, IRGC-QF tried to bomb a café in Washington, D.C.—and among its Iraqi proxies is Kataib Hizballah (KH), which is also a registered terrorist group, having killed numerous American and British soldiers. KH and other IRGC-QF militias, under the banner of al-Hashd al-Shabi, are now a formal part of the Iraqi state, and Baghdad has already conducted an airstrike into Syria.
Allowing Iran to have an even larger footprint in Syria for its global terrorist apparatus hardly seems congruent with Western interests, nor letting Tehran complete its project of opening a second front against Israel from Syria. Just this week, another of Iran’s Iraqi proxies operating in Syria, Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba, announced the creation of a spin-off militia intended to “liberate” the Golan Heights.
Moreover, the assumption that allowing an Iranian-Russian condominium in eastern Syria would keep IS suppressed is very dubious. Putting aside the capacity issues for IRGC-QF and the YPG/PKK, both are despised by the local population, so their takeover of this area is unlikely to yield the cooperation needed to uproot the underground networks that will continue to raise the revenue that keeps IS alive and enables terrorism as IS returns to the insurgent phase of its revolutionary war. Whatever short-term accommodation was made, there would be enough political space for IS to revive over the medium- and long-term.
The image of direct Western coordination with the pro-Assad coalition, if the U.S./YPG offensive then hands over to the regime coalition, would be an immediate-run political-security problem, generating support and recruits for Salafi-jihadism—not solely IS. Al-Qaeda would also benefit from the vindication of its narrative of a global conspiracy against Sunnis against which only it can defend. More directly, the removal of IS and the polarization caused if IRGC-QF or the YPG filled the vacuum would redound to al-Qaeda’s benefit.
Rewarding the cynical manipulation of jihadists by the Assad regime, to divide and discredit its enemies, while committing crimes against humanity on this scale, seems unwise. This is not just a humanitarian concern: such a policy feeds directly into the political strategy of the Salafi-jihadists. Further, in the broadest sense IS is a symptom of failed governance in Iraq and Syria. It may not be possible to entirely eliminate IS, but the formation of a political structure in eastern Syria, under the protection of a neutral outside power like the U.S., which is seen as legitimate and responsive to the local population, is a sustainable solution in keeping IS down to a manageable level. The U.S. itself has said that “locally-based forces,” who “know the terrain and know the territory” are needed to “hold ground after ISIL is gone”—hence the exclusion of Shi’a and Kurdish militias from Mosul City. Allowing forces to displace IS in the Sunni Arab areas that are received as new occupiers, rather than liberators, merely resets the cycle that gave rise to the caliphate in the first place.
Post has been updated