President Donald Trump's administration has scrapped the previous administration's plan to take Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State (IS) group. The plan proposed a strategy of training Kurdish forces, providing them with new equipment, and helping them retake the city.
US-supplied armored vehicles have only been delivered to the Syrian Arab Coalition (a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces – SDF), which is made up of militants predominantly from local Arab areas. The Kurdish components of SDF have been denied the aid not to spoil the US relations with Turkey.
According to the Washington Post, the officials said they were dismayed that there was no provision for coordinating operations with Russia and no clear political strategy to address Turkey, a country that would be angered by the US cooperation with the Kurds, and the lack of a plan B in case the Kurdish offensive failed. They also said the plan lacked specifics on the number of troops needed for the operation.
The operation Euphrates Anger was launched by US-backed SDF in November 2016. Obviously, President Trump sets much store by cooperation with Moscow in the fight against terrorists. He faces the problem of getting Turkey on board. Russia and the US could join together as intermediaries to facilitate talks between the Kurds and Turkey.
Turkey has excellent relations with the Iraqi Kurds who could also join in mediation effort. If progress is achieved, Washington will not let down the Syrian Kurds, cooperating with Ankara. Since January 18, Russia and Turkey, a US NATO ally, have been engaged in joint operation to retake Al Bab.
No success is achievable without sufficient ground forces. The Kurdish formations are not enough and there is a basis for joining together – the US and Turkey see eye to eye on the idea to create safe zones in Syria. Russia has agreed to discuss the issue in principle. It’s important that the Trump team is not as adamant as the previous administration about making Syrian President Assad resign.
Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump's new National Security Adviser, has always been critical of Obama’s Syria policy calling it inconsistent. He has supported the idea of the US and Russia cooperating in the fight against the IS. «We have to work constructively with Russia. Whether we like it or not, Russia made a decision to be there (in Syria) and to act militarily. They are there, and this has dramatically changed the dynamic», Flynn told Der Spiegel in an interview.
President Donald Trump has stated that regime change in Syria would only cause more instability in the region. He thinks that shoring up President Assad is the most efficient way to stem the spread of terrorism. According to Mr. Trump’s statements, he would weigh an alliance with Russia against Islamic State militants.
On January 28, the president ordered military leaders to give him a report in 30 days that outlines a new strategy for defeating the IS. The document is expected to include recommendations on changes to military actions, diplomacy, coalition partners, mechanisms to cut off or seize the group’s financial support and a way to pay for the strategy.
The president charged Defense Secretary James Mattis with developing a plan with the help of the secretaries of State, Treasury and Homeland Security, the director of national intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the assistant to the president for national security affairs and the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
The order was signed hours after speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone – the first call between the leaders since Donald Trump took office. Mr. Putin emphasized that «for over two centuries Russia has supported the United States, was its ally during the two world wars, and now sees the United States as a major partner in fighting international terrorism».
With Donald Trump in office, a deal on coordinating activities is reachable. Joint operations to retake Raqqa would be a good start. The zones of influence and mutual obligations could be defined. Russia is ready to cooperate with the US during the operation to retake Raqqa. Last October, it was reported that Moscow planned to discuss the issue with the US officials.
Joining together, the parties could gradually move forward within the framework of Astana process and the UN-brokered talks to be revived in Geneva this month. The cooperation between Russia and the US is key to achieving progress in the Syria’s crisis management. It could spread to other areas of the bilateral relationship.
Actually, an offensive to liberate Raqqa is impossible without coordinating activities with Moscow. Russia, the US and Turkey are the pivotal actors in the conflict. The operation to retake Raqqa must be conducted with the consent of the Syria’s government. It is hard to imagine the US and Turkey discussing the issue with the government of Bashar Assad. Russia is perfectly suited to be a mediator.
And what comes next after Raqqa is retaken? Who and under what authority will govern? With the pertinent actors involved in the conflict holding different, even opposite, visions of the country’s future, there will have to be international presence and agreement on what to do next.
The cooperation between Russia, the US and Turkey during the battle for Raqqa could become a start of wider process with diplomacy given a chance. It could also become a start of Russia-US cooperation in Syria and other countries where the IS has presence.