The US administration has tasked the Department of Defense with preparing, by Feb. 28, a comprehensive plan to defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. With only eight days left, it's clear we're entering the final phase of preparations for retaking Raqqa, the strategic heart of IS in Syria.
Turkey has been involved in many conversations with the US this month. Following the Feb. 17 visit of CIA director Mike Pompeo to Ankara, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met at Incirlik Air Base with Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar. On Feb. 18-19, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim discussed Raqqa and developments in northern Syria with US Vice President Mike Pence at the International Munich Security Conference.
Ankara is clearly delighted with US President Donald Trump’s rapid tackling of Syria and Washington's high-level cooperation. Obviously, Moscow is not all that pleased with the resurgence of diplomatic activity between Ankara and Washington regarding northern Syria. But we also have to note that Ankara is concurrently working to fortify field cooperation with Russia west of the Euphrates. Russia, Turkey and Iran — which organized the peace talks last month and again last week in Astana, Kazakhstan — are forming a task force to monitor and implement the cease-fire in Syria. As a first step, Russia and Turkey could field a joint cease-fire monitoring force west of the Euphrates.
While Ankara is discussing with Washington a Raqqa operation to knock out IS, it is also trying to preserve its improved diplomatic ties with Moscow to maintain Turkey’s gains in Operation Euphrates Shield. Washington and Moscow are vying for leverage in northern Syria. Russia sees all of northern Syria as its area of influence, whereas the US seems to concede the west while considering the eastern side to be its sphere of influence.
Until the US and Russia agree on their "territories," it will be difficult for Turkey to please both parties simultaneously. Perhaps this is why, in recent days when Ankara moved closer to Washington, Moscow began playing its "Kurdish card" more openly. The Feb. 15 timing of the Regional Kurdish Conference organized by Russia in Moscow is significant.
By inviting not only Syrian Kurds but Kurdish representatives from Turkey, Iran and Iraq, Moscow signaled it has a regional perspective for the Kurdish issue. Also, Moscow’s close contacts with officials from the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria on drafting a new constitution for Syria is another reaction to warming relations between the US and Turkey in northern Syria.
The perplexing question is how long Turkey will be able to manage the divergent interests of the US and Russia. Whether Turkey will opt for close cooperation with Russia or the US in northern Syria is not a routine foreign policy decision, but a major one that will certainly determine the route Turkey will be following in years to come.
Many people are puzzled about why the US imposes conditions that Turkey detests, but still insists on having Turkey participate in the Raqqa operation. At the moment there are two main causes of friction between the US and Turkey over Raqqa. The first is Manbij, which is controlled by the People's Protection Units (YPG), immediately west of the Euphrates, south of Jarablus. The message Ankara is sending to Washington is: “We will assist you at Raqqa but as a sign of your goodwill, give us Manbij,” while Washington says, “Let’s start at Raqqa. Let us see your commitment and field performance at Raqqa. We will then talk about Manbij.”
The other key friction point involves the launching point for the Raqqa operation. To prevent harm to Kobani, the US favors launching the operation from al-Bab, 110 miles from Raqqa. But Turkey favors launching the operation from Tell Abyad, adjacent to the Turkish border, 60 miles north of Raqqa.
If Turkey’s views prevail, its armored forces would overrun and control the Kurdish canton of Kobani.
There are three main reasons why the US needs Turkey at Raqqa: military, demographic and symbolic. Militarily, Raqqa will be a conventional front, with 8,000 to 10,000 IS militants now in Raqqa mixed in with about 220,000 civilians, just as IS mixes in with the population in al-Bab and Mosul. IS appears determined to defend Raqqa to the very end with a system based on tunnel warfare, anti-tank missiles, drones and suicide attacks with armored vehicles. That is why a Raqqa operation will need tanks, armored vehicles, indirect artillery and rocket support as much as infantry. The US badly needs Turkey's armored and artillery support in what promises to be a tough operation.
What are Turkey’s options for giving military support to a Raqqa operation?
Turkey refrains from giving any form of military support on the ground but assists with logistical support primarily from Incirlik Air Base. Turkey also promises it will not undertake any cross-border operations against the Kobani and Jazeera Kurdish cantons during the operation. In this option, the question will be who will be supplying the armor and long-distance artillery support. One possibility that comes to mind is the Syrian army. But that army has been having a difficult time at Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra against IS. If Syria is forced to reach agreements with the US and Russia, the Syrian army can deploy armored units and artillery to Raqqa without directly participating in clashes.
Turkey participates in Raqqa with a special forces detachment of 250-300 troops: This will indicate that Turkey wishes to follow Raqqa developments closely and that the US isn’t against it. If this option is chosen, we can presume Turkey still hopes to have a role in reconstructing Raqqa after its capture.
In addition to special forces, Turkey sends one or two each of armored and mechanized infantry brigades, plus two or three 155-meter howitzer battalions and one or two 122 mm rocketry battalions with a total of 3,000-4,000 soldiers. By choosing this option (which is actually the US' pick) Turkey would confirm that Ankara has agreed to a joint operation with a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) affiliate, the YPG. This option would also mean that Turkey would want a role in running and reconstructing Raqqa.
In addition to the special forces and armored artillery units, Turkey sends four to five commando battalions, bringing Turkey’s participation to 7,000-8,000 soldiers. This option signifies the highest level of Turkish commitment to the Raqqa operation. It would mean Ankara had persuaded Washington that Turkey could make up for the infantry gap that would arise from excluding the Kurdish YPG from Raqqa. Ankara would do so by using its own commandos in addition to the Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Free Syrian Army. To compensate for such generous participation, Turkey would expect maximum input into the future of Raqqa and northern Syria.
The second reason why the US insists on having Turkey join the Raqqa operation is the human terrain. Nearly all of the more than 200,000 people in Raqqa are Sunni Arabs. There is a small Christian minority and an even smaller Kurdish presence in the town and its periphery. The US must win the hearts and minds of Sunni Arab tribes in Raqqa, which are most concerned with whether the Kurdish YPG will stay in Raqqa in the post-IS era. The US strongly feels the need to have Turkey's support in winning over the Arab tribes.
The last reason the US needs Turkey in Raqqa is symbolic. An operation against Raqqa is crucial for the Sunni psyche in the Middle East, and having Sunni elements in the field alongside the US is vital for the legitimacy of the operation in Sunni eyes.
The Raqqa operation is taking shape, but amid multifaceted, tangled issues. Commanding and managing this operation is likely to be more complicated than the one at Mosul. No doubt IS is monitoring discussions between Ankara and Washington, probably even more so than are Moscow, Tehran and Damascus.