Analysis

Kurds' Surprise Assault on ISIS-held Raqqa Catches Mideast Power Players Off Guard

The Pentagon may be keeping a relatively low profile at this stage to avoid angering America’s wayward ally, Turkey.

YPG militia members flash the V sign in the Syrian province of Aleppo last year.
Mursel Coban/Depo Photos via AP

The announcement Sunday by the Syrian Democratic Forces that they have begun the long-awaited operation to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from ISIS came as a surprise and seems premature.

The operation has been talked about for months and was expected to take place some time after the operation in Iraq's Mosul, which began last week. But it came without any similar announcement from the Headquarters of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and it is still unclear which forces will be taking part alongside the SDF.

Raqqa is now the main headquarters of the Islamic State and tens of thousands of its fighters are believed to based in and around the city. An SDF spokeswoman said that 30,000 fighters are to take part in “Operation Euphrates Rage,” but without significant cooperation from other allies and airstrikes, it will be extremely difficult for it to uproot ISIS, which has had nearly two years to prepare its defenses and many of whose members will fight to the death.

It is unlikely that the SDF, which has received significant arms supplies and military training from the U.S., is acting without some form of coordination with the Pentagon. Indeed, the fact that the operation was timed for election week in America may not be a coincidence.

In Iraq, many have called the offensive against ISIS in Mosul “Operation Obama,” as they believe the retaking of the city was planned to take place before Barack Obama leaves the White House. Two ongoing operations could make it easier for the administration and the Clinton campaign to counter Donald Trump’s claims that they are weak against ISIS.

The Pentagon, though, may be keeping a relatively low profile at this stage to avoid angering America’s wayward ally, Turkey. The Turkish government distrusts the SDF, which is mainly Kurdish, though it includes also Arab and Turkomen fighters, and its member organization, the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, which it accuses of having ties to the PKK underground in Turkey.

Like the PKK, Turkey regards the YPG a terror organization and earlier this year shelled positions taken by SDF and YPG north of Aleppo, killing both fighters and civilians. Turkey has been trying to prepare and arm its own Syrian Arab militia for the battle of Raqqa, 100 kilometers south of its border.

The announcement on the start of the battle could indicate that the U.S. has convinced Turkey to accept the SDF’s participation or that it has reached the conclusion that such an agreement will not be forthcoming from the Erdogan government and decided to go ahead anyway. However, if the Turks are still opposed to the SDF, it means that other rebel organizations, including those of the Free Syria Army, which are dependent on Turkish aid, will not take part either.

The operational timing of the Raqqa operation could have been hastened due to attempts by ISIS fighters to escape from Mosul across the border to Syria, and its first stage will be cutting off any eastward routes from Raqqa leading to Mosul.

Either way, the battle for Raqqa is unlikely to be for the city itself in the next few weeks, but instead a gradual encroaching through the countryside and encirclement, in a similar fashion to the three weeks-old battle for Mosul, which only now has reached the city’s outlying neighborhoods. Neither city may be fully liberated by the time Obama leaves office on January 20.