The United States and Turkey are on a collision course in Raqqa, as Turkish officials warn that Washington’s reliance on Kurdish forces to liberate the Islamic State’s de facto capital would severely damage its relationship with Ankara.
The current U.S. plan to advance on Raqqa depends heavily on the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that Washington has supported with airstrikes and provided with military equipment. But Turkish officials accuse the group of being just another name for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group listed as a terror organization by Washington and Ankara that has waged a decades-long guerrilla war against Turkey. They say that the PKK has used YPG-held territory in Syria — territory gained in part with the backing of the United States — to train their fighters and plan attacks against Turkey.
If Ankara wanted to, it could throw a sizeable wrench in U.S. strategy in the region — for example, by cutting off access to airbases in southern Turkey, from which the United States launches airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, or by deepening its cooperation with Russia.
President Donald Trump’s administration is currently engaged in an intense debate over whether to continue supporting Kurdish forces’ advance on Raqqa, or shift U.S. support to Turkey and its allies. Top American commanders view the Kurds as superior fighters and the only viable option for ousting the Islamic State. They are skeptical of Turkey’s competing proposal to exclude the Kurds altogether and let Turkish troops and an Ankara-backed Syrian Arab force retake the ISIS stronghold, with U.S. help.
Even as the Trump administration weighs its options, the U.S. military is ramping up for the assault, drawing up plans to deploy up to 1,000 more American soldiers to Syria in support of the YPG and allied forces, known collectively as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have advanced mere miles from the city. Pentagon officials assess that the roughly 27,000 Kurds in the 50,000-strong SDF are the more effective, experienced fighters.
“The SDF is the partner force most capable of acting swiftly to isolate Raqqa,” said Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon.
Pahon said that a majority of the SDF force currently isolating Raqqa are Syrian Arab fighters, including a significant contingent that hail from the area around the city. Nevertheless, he said, it’s not clear which group will actually liberate the Islamic State stronghold. “While that isolation is underway, we will continue to plan for the subsequent phases with our allies and partners, including Turkey,” he said. “There have been no decisions made on what force will be used to liberate Raqqa.”
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