Revisiting Train-and-Equip in Syria to Clear the Manbij Pocket
The United States and its closest partner in Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), have worked closely together to take territory from the Islamic State. The PYD’s militia—the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—is the most dominant group in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This partnership relies on a small number of American special operations forces (SOF) to embed with the SDF to leverage the benefits of airpower to take territory. This approach is based on the United States’ recent experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, where a small number of ground forces allowed for local militias to rapidly take territory.
As the anti-ISIL coalition and its Kurdish majority partner begins the campaign to force ISIL from Raqqa, its capital, concurrent efforts to defeat the group in the Manbij pocket – the stretch of Islamic State controlled territory between the cities of Marea and Manbij near the Turkish-Syrian border – will gain in importance. The taking of Raqqa city will ultimately require four interlinked efforts. First, the continued SDF-led efforts to take territory in northern Raqqa province, beginning with a southward push from strongholds near Ain Issa and just north of Raqqa city. Second, the American and Jordanian supported “New Syrian Army” continue its move north towards the town of Al Bukamal, an ISIL controlled town in the Euphrates River Valley on the Iraqi-Syrian border. The SDF continues to push south from Markadah, outside of Ash Shaddadi. Finally, a force will also have to close the Manbij pocket to deny ISIL freedom of movement from strongholds on the western flank to reinforce positions in and around its capital city.
The strategy to clear the Manbij pocket, however, remains hampered by Turkish concerns about the YPG and the United States’ decision not to embed special operators with the Arab and Turkmen groups active in the area. ISIL has taken advantage of this disagreement, attacking villages between Azaz and Marea, cutting the last remaining Arab majority opposition territory in two. To increase the effectiveness of operations in the Manbij pocket, the United States should consider restarting a train-and-equip program, designed to fit a narrow mission set: relaying coordinates to the coalition for more effective targeting in the area to take Raqqa. This program would have to first focus on defeating ISIL positions near Azaz and Marea, before beginning to push the group further east.
Revising a Failed Train-and-Equip Program
The first iteration of the train-and-equip program sought to create an entirely new rebel brigade, Division 30, trained in Turkey to fight the Islamic State exclusively. Washington insistence that this force refrain from fighting the Assad regime was incongruent with the military goals of the opposition. At the same time, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, was present in the area and viewed the introduction of U.S. trained fighters as a threat to its power. While the program was cancelled following al-Nusra’s seizure of Division 30 equipment, in an overlooked success, Division 30 was able to call in U.S. airstrikes when it came under attack from al-Nusra. An updated program should build upon this limited success.
Since the failure of the program, the YPG has remained the closest U.S. partner in Syria’s civil war. This relationship, however, is complicated by the YPG’s direct links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish government for close to three decades, first with the aim of carving out an independent Kurdistan and now to achieve so-called democratic autonomy. The YPG-PKK linkage ultimately poses longer-term problems for the American relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally since 1952, as they fight a renewed bloody counterinsurgency campaign in their southeastern provinces.
For the immediate task of “defeating and degrading” ISIL, the SDF’s utility as a ground force in Kurdish-majority areas has proved to be a successful formula. The SDF has expressed a sustained interest in taking the cities of Manbij and Jarablus from ISIL, before continuing west to link up with the isolated PYD run territory of Efrin in Syria’s northeast. It is unclear if the YPG has the requisite strength to fight a two-front offensive against ISIL, on its western front line as well as its 115-mile front line between Margadeh and Ain Issa. Moreover, even if the YPG had the ability to take and hold territory from ISIL in these two areas, its doing so could come at the expense of the U.S.-Turkish relationship. There are also concerns that a heavy Kurdish presence in the pocket would exacerbate ethnic tensions and further undermine the broader effort to defeat ISIL. So, what other options are available to the United States to drive a stake in the heart of ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliphate?
The United States and Turkey are currently working together to arm various Arab- and Turkmen- majority rebel groups in this area, but these groups do not possess an integrated command structure, which limits their battlefield effectiveness. At the same time, U.S. forces do not operate west of the Euphrates River, largely over concerns for their being taken hostage and turned over to groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. For these reasons, the Arab and Turkmen groups in the area that do receive U.S. support are not able to fully leverage the benefits of American airpower. The presence of groups hostile to the United States also rules out the deployment of special operators in the area, further limiting the effectiveness of the air campaign.
Redefining the Mission
A new approach in the Manbij pocket could narrow the goal of the previous train-and-equip program to focus only on increasing the effectiveness of the air campaign; not building an entirely new insurgent force. The United States should consider training a small number of Arab and Turkmen fighters from the list of previously vetted fighters for the canceled train-and-equip program, or identify members fighting with groups that currently receive U.S. support to receive training to identify targets for the coalition.
This approach could compensate for these groups’ key weaknesses: poor leadership and the inability to fight outside of their hometowns. Instead, what this narrow focused approach could do is to create a mechanism for small cadres of men to pass coordinates to the coalition for the planning of the daily strike missions, in addition to providing spotters for more timely targeting in the pocket.
New Dynamics, New Opportunities
Changes to local dynamics inside the Manbij pocket may also increase the chance for success. Al-Nusra largely left the area in August 2015, leaving only an estimated 50 fighters in the town of Azaz. The implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities (COH), imperfect as it has been, has reduced the levels of violence in the country and has effectively grounded the regime’s air force along the majority of the Turkish-Syrian border, including the Manbij pocket. This creates conditions allowing opposition forces to focus their efforts against ISIL without fearing regime aerial attacks. In the longer term, these forces will certainly retain an interest in overthrowing the regime, but this should not dissuade the United States from exploiting their overlapping immediate interests with elements of the opposition to take territory from ISIL.
As a first step, the United States could train a small number of fighters to replicate tactics the YPG already employs, such as using Samsung Tablets and Google Earth to relay Islamic State positions to American planners, who then vet these targets. This approach would resemble a similar effort in Libya, where NATO relied on coordinates and information passed on from Libyan opposition groups and a network of spotters and informants communicating through social media apps to map enemy positions in numerous different cities.
This would allow the fighters from a new train-and-equip program to better exploit American airpower by using their local knowledge to relay area specific information to the coalition for more precise targeting. They would also act as a conduit to engage with the local population. The United States and Turkey should also properly equip vetted groups with tools to protect themselves from Islamic State ground attacks, including secure communications, night vision goggles, and sufficient ammunition.
This approach is not without some obvious flaws. The most powerful non-Kurdish group in the area, Ahrar al Sham, is a Salafi group with links to al-Nusra. The two groups are symbiotic actors in Syria and together share governing responsibilities in Idlib. This partnership remains controversial and, is ultimately, the reason why the United States is hesitant to work with Ahrar against ISIL or the regime. It also poses a longer term problem that air power will do little to address: The continued presence of groups hostile to the United States in Syria, independent of ISIL and the Syrian regime. Ahrar could, in theory, be co-opted to join the political process in Syria, but al-Nusra will have to be dealt with militarily once ISIL is rolled back.
This updated train-and-equip strategy, therefore, could be leveraged in the future to identify partners that could work to target al-Nusra, or both al-Nusra and Ahrar depending on the direction the conflict takes. The other significant, longer-term, problem is that the tactical military successes discussed above have not translated into tangible political progress in the countries where they were employed. Thus, while the pairing of airpower, special operations forces, and local forces have proved effective in taking territory, these narrowly defined “successes” do not lead to the needed political and military conditions to hold or govern territory taken. As such, this policy option is to address the immediate goal of defeating ISIL, and is unlikely to create conditions for the successful governance of Syria in the longer term.
There are considerable challenges in northern Syria, particularly the restriction against U.S. forces deploying west of the Euphrates. Moreover, the Arab and Turkmen groups in the area remain divided, with weak commanders. But the need to defeat ISIL with indigenous forces requires adapting proven strategies to the current environment in the Manbij pocket. This strategy has obvious drawbacks – and will take time to fully implement – but to accomplish the task of defeating ISIL, the U.S. has few other options.
Andrea Taylor is an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of the US military.
Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Image: CENTCOM. The map was produced by Nancy Messieh using data from the Syria Live Map for “Operations in the Manbij Pocket: Finding A Way Forward in the War against ISIS.”