Although the war against ISIL has been raging since 2014, the international coalition efforts have mostly been in the form of aerial bombings and financial and military support offered to the local forces on the ground that are actively fighting ISIL. However, with the Raqqa offensive first launched in 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the war has been shaped by the involvement of various international players. Dubbed the ‘Battle to End All Battles’, the front aims to capture ISIL’s de facto capital of Raqqa.
Who is Leading the Raqqa Offensive?
These various international players are the US, Turkey, Russia, Syrian Democratic Forces, the Syrian government and the People’s Protection Unit (also known as the Kurdish YPG). Since the promised defeat of ISIL formed a substantial part of President Trump’s election campaign, the current administration holds the ambition of seeing ISIL wiped out of Raqqa and concluding the operation as a success.
However, the internal dynamics between the players on the ground seems to require a painful and intricate balance between the YPG, a party that the US views to be very much capable of fighting against ISIL, and America’s NATO ally Turkey, that regards YPG as a terrorist organisation. The YPG is linked to another Kurdish faction, the PKK, which has assaulted the Turkish territories in the east and caused massive casualties for the Turks.
The US’ ambition to use the YPG forces on the ground is a continuation of its fighting strategy abroad: using the ambitious and obliging local forces to their best advantage while combining their efforts with limited American troops on the ground, supported by weaponry and shelling. With the battle-hardened Kurds proving to be resourceful on the ground, the US is very much reluctant to yield to the petulance of its NATO ally, Turkey and exclude these forces from the Raqqa offensive.
Turkey’s Ulterior Motives
One of the reasons – if not the main reason – for why Turkey has sent troops and joined this fight was to prevent the Kurds from opening a corridor from Kobani to Afrin, uniting the separated regions of Rojava, a Kurdish de facto autonomous region located in northern Syria. Feeling threatened by Rojava’s emergence, which is encouraging activism for autonomy within the Kurdish populations living in Turkey, the country has persistently tried to isolate the de facto Kurdish state through various means – the latest one being its opposition to the involvement of YPG forces in the Raqqa offensive.
Although the US wants to quickly reach success and annihilate ISIL, both the Turkish and Kurdish parties have more long-term and strategic goals in mind. This situation continues to prolong and delay the successful progression of the Raqqa offensive. Ankara has repeatedly stated that the inclusion of the YPG forces could harm the future of US-Turkey relations, repeatedly denouncing the YPG as a terrorist organisation.
The tension between the two sides manifests itself in frictions on the ground as well, as evident from the fact that US forces were needed to enter between the two hostile factions and create a buffer zone near Manbij so that they would not attack each other. With this, Turkey has been effectively subdued by the US, whose move made it impossible for the Turks to attack the Kurdish side.
The yellow area in the map below is the Rojava region, its upper side bordering Turkey’s east:
With the US appearing to side with the Kurds on this issue, the Turkish government feels like it has been sidelined by the US. This pushes the country away from the West and more towards alliances in Eurasia with countries like Russia. This is evident from Turkey’s currently improving relationships with the Russians: though a Russian jet was downed on Turkish territory not long ago, causing tensions between the countries and resulting in economic sanctions from Russia, those are slowly being lifted and the two countries are in talks for further reconciliatory moves.
There is also Iran, another potential ally given its strong stance against the United States and prominent alliance with the Russians. How the Turkish-US relations will unfold in lieu of the Americans siding with the Kurds is a matter of great importance for the future of the region, albeit an uncertain one. But the events which have unfolded so far seems to suggest that a possible shift in where Turkey’s allegiances lie is a highly probable outcome.