The war against the Islamic State (ISIL) has hit a pivotal, dangerous phase in eastern Syria. For the Trump administration, this poses a slew of challenges.
Even as a U.S.-backed offensive makes headway into Raqqa, policymakers in Washington must simultaneously address the danger of escalation between rival allies, a complex post-ISIL governance dilemma, and a rising risk of direct escalation with the Syrian regime and its patrons, Iran and Russia. The latter appears especially urgent, following the June 18 downing of a Syrian fighter jet by a U.S. aircraft, and several U.S. strikes on pro-regime forces advancing toward (or otherwise deemed threatening to) U.S. personnel and partner forces since May 18.
Thus far, the White House has emphasized two priorities in Syria: to gain ground from ISIL as quickly as possible, and to limit U.S. investment to the minimum required for immediate military objectives. A third priority, countering Iran’s influence, features prominently in the administration’s messaging, but has yet to be fleshed-out within its Syria policy.
The United States needs to address the tension among these objectives. What is fast and cheap often proves fragile and costly in the long run. And sliding into an escalatory cycle with Iran would not only endanger progress against ISIL, but also potentially redound to Tehran’s advantage. Two lessons from the post-2003 U.S. experience in Iraq seem apt: First, impressive military gains may give way to jihadist resurgence if fundamental threats to stability are left unaddressed. And second, Iran’s patience and proxy network render it formidable in a war of attrition.
Achieving durable wins against ISIL in eastern Syria while limiting risk of direct confrontation with the regime’s backers will require pro-active and sustained U.S. engagement on three fronts: managing conflict between its Turkish and Kurdish allies, incentivizing a new approach to governance in Raqqa, and carefully delineating objectives in Deir al-Zour.
This article draws from five research trips I have conducted in northern Syria, including one last month, and from regular meetings with U.S. and Turkish officials.
Preventing Escalation Between Rival Allies
For Washington, the Raqqa campaign has further complicated a tricky balancing act between its Kurdish ally on the ground — the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — and its NATO ally Turkey.
The YPG, which provides the leadership and core of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has proven an essential partner in fighting ISIL. The Kurdish force coordinates smoothly with its U.S. counterparts, has reliably secured areas it captures, and expanded SDF ranks to include an impressive number of Arabs, even as Kurds continue to bear the brunt of combat. Its alliance with the United States notwithstanding, the YPG remains deeply intertwined with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an insurgent group, defined by the U.S. and Turkey as a terrorist organization, currently mired in a violent round of its 33-year conflict with Turkey.
The Trump administration decided in early May to directly arm the YPG to enable it to take Raqqa, judging that the urgency of driving ISIL from its de facto Syrian capital outweighs the potential fallout with a key ally, and the risks that come with capturing an Arab-majority city of some 200,000 with a Kurdish-dominated force. It did so over strenuous Turkish objections. As officials in Ankara see it, the YPG’s ties to the PKK suggest that every deepening of U.S.-YPG cooperation and expansion of the latter’s territory provides additional arms, combat experience, international legitimacy, and leverage to an organization with which Turkey is at war within its borders and beyond.
Though Ankara thus far has reacted with relative restraint to the U.S. decision, the Turkey-PKK-YPG dynamic remains explosive, and thus a serious threat to U.S.-backed efforts against ISIL. Turkey carried out air strikes on April 25 against a YPG command center in northeastern Syria, and Turkish officials recently told me they may respond to any significant PKK attacks inside Turkey with additional strikes against the YPG in Syria — a development that could spark a dangerous escalatory cycle, and undermine the Raqqa campaign (or subsequent counter-ISIL offensives) by forcing the YPG to divert resources.
The Trump administration is working with both sides to mitigate these risks, and the results have been positive in recent weeks. Expanding and highlighting the co-location of U.S. personnel with YPG partners seems to have some deterrent effect on Ankara’s inclination to strike. Meanwhile, U.S. pressure appears to have pushed the PKK to rein-in attacks — there have been no bombings in western Turkey since December, and the last major bombing in an eastern city occurred in Diyarbakir on April 11 (though fighting continues in rural areas of the southeast).
Averting escalation, however, may require additional, pro-active U.S. engagement. Two clear challenges loom. First, though the PKK itself has held-back of late, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), an offshoot group widely believed to maintain links to the PKK, recently threatened to renew attacks on Turkey’s cities and tourist sites. U.S. officials should make clear to the PKK that they will hold it responsible for any attack bearing its fingerprints, even if officially claimed by TAK.
The second challenge will likely rear its head in coming weeks. The YPG is playing a central role in the SDF’s operations in Raqqa, but Washington has told Ankara that, following the city’s capture, YPG personnel will leave and allow locals to govern. That assurance is fraught with ambiguity, as both Turkish and U.S. officials I’ve spoken to acknowledge. Like a similar promise made (but only partially implemented) by the Obama administration for the city of Manbij following its liberation in August 2016, this one will be difficult to fulfill in a manner acceptable to both Ankara and the YPG. The latter has signaled willingness to devolve additional responsibility to local partners, but based on what I was told in Syria, it seems clear the YPG is not interested in surrendering overall control. This is but one of many complications that may render the establishment of security and viable governance in Raqqa more difficult than any city captured by the SDF thus far.
Developing a New Governance Model
Establishing viable local governance in Raqqa is essential — not only to remove one potential fuse in the Turkey-YPG conflict, but also to achieve a level of stability that limits opportunities for jihadist resurgence. Success in Raqqa could also provide an adaptable template for subsequent liberated areas, if the U.S.-backed fight against ISIL moves further down the Euphrates River into neighboring Deir al-Zour province.
Raqqa needs a new governance model, informed by the experiences — positive and negative — of the YPG’s “democratic self-administration” of areas under its direct control. The “democratic” moniker notwithstanding, real power in YPG-held areas is concentrated in the hands of Kurdish cadres with PKK backgrounds. This approach has some significant advantages: the cadres’ organization and competence have enabled the self-administration to achieve an impressive degree of stability under difficult circumstances. But it also entails huge drawbacks, particularly in majority-Arab areas.
As I observed in my visits, throughout most YPG-held territory Arabs who join the self-administration are given impressive titles but little authority. As a result, the acceptance of what in practice is Kurdish dominated governance rests narrowly on the provision of security and services — and those pillars already appear strained in some places. Services are meager, and security is a double-edged sword: Arab residents I’ve met express appreciation for the relative stability, but also frustration at what some perceive as the draconian tactics of outsiders.
There have been some improvements of late, as I learned during my most recent trip. In Manbij, increased prodding by U.S. officials and deft coalition-building by key self-administration personnel yielded notable changes in style and substance: The YPG flags and posters of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan that blanket much of northeastern Syria (including majority-Arab areas) are absent in the city. Day-to-day security tasks are handled by local recruits. And Arab members of the local governing council have been afforded more responsibility than is evident elsewhere. That said, Qandil-trained Kurdish cadres are still widely seen as the ultimate authority and backbone of local governance.
Those adjustments have been sufficient thus far in Manbij, but more will be required in Raqqa. There, the YPG is preparing to expand a strained governance network to the largest Arab-majority city it has yet attempted to control. Without significant changes to its model and increased external support, there is a real danger of overstretch — which would present opportunities for jihadists to exploit.
Avoiding this trap will require increased engagement and investment from the U.S. and European members of the anti-ISIL coalition — both to incentivize appropriate shifts by the YPG, and to ensure that the nascent local government in Raqqa has sufficient resources to establish stability and earn local credibility. The U.S. has already taken important steps by establishing a training program for local security forces, and directly pressing organizers of the new “Raqqa Civil Council” for wide representation of Raqqawi society within the body.
Yet much will depend on funding, and on the recruitment and development of local figures capable of managing core administration, security, and service provision responsibilities that often have been handled by PKK-trained cadres elsewhere in YPG-held areas. The United States and its European partners should offer substantial “stabilization” support to fill the post-ISIL vacuum, conditioned upon gradual and verifiable steps by the YPG to entrust meaningful authority to locals, via the Raqqa Civil Council and security forces trained by the United States. The goal: a capable local government run by a broad cross-section of Raqqawis; defended from external threat by the SDF and acceptable to the YPG, but operating independently of its “self-administration” and cadres.
If established, such a model could address concerns of those — be they in Ankara, Raqqa, or Deir al-Zour — who equate the arrival of SDF forces with the imposition of single-party YPG rule.
Planning ahead for Deir al-Zour
The situation in Deir al-Zour province makes Raqqa look simple. Its riverbank towns and adjacent countryside, home to a primarily Sunni Arab population of roughly one million people, likely will serve as ISIL’s final Syrian stronghold. The Syrian regime still has a foothold in the provincial capital, where its forces and tens of thousands of civilians are besieged by ISIL. The strategic stakes of capturing the area are significant: they include the country’s most important oil fields and transportation links with neighboring Iraq.
Extending the U.S.-backed campaign into the heart of Deir al-Zour province thus presents two major challenges.
First, the aforementioned danger of YPG overstretch would grow, exacerbated by the area’s demographics and whatever attrition their forces suffer in Raqqa. Applying the governance model outlined above could help address that risk. In addition, Washington could incorporate rebel forces it has trained and equipped in Syria’s southeast into a coalition alongside SDF elements. Many of those rebels are originally from Deir al-Zour and fought ISIL there three years ago, and thus could add both manpower and local credibility to the effort. Negotiating such an arrangement would be tricky, given mistrust between rebels and the YPG; but key figures on both sides have told me it could be accomplished if Washington pushed for it.
That still leaves the second challenge: the Syrian regime and its allies. Seizing on momentum and a partial ceasefire to the west, pro-regime forces have shifted east with robust Russian and Iranian support. They are racing to break ISIL’s siege in Deir al-Zour city and to pre-empt what they perceive as a U.S.-backed effort to establish a belt of control severing Syria from Iraq. In the process, pro-regime forces repeatedly have attempted to advance toward a base on the Syria-Iraq border where U.S. and other Western forces are training anti-ISIL rebels. On several occasions, U.S. forces have responded by striking pro-regime personnel and unmanned aircraft. Meanwhile further north, clashes between a separate contingent of advancing regime forces and SDF elements near Raqqa led to the U.S. downing a regime plane on June 18, in what it called “collective self-defense” of partnered forces. Given the competitive nature and close proximity of SDF and pro-regime campaigns, similar confrontations appear likely in the coming weeks and months.
The potential for dangerous escalation is obvious — and especially acute given the public role of Iran’s proxy militias, and Washington’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric toward Tehran.
The Trump administration should clarify its priorities here. It might have good reasons to back its local allies in an attempt to capture parts of Deir al-Zour province. Leaving these areas under ISIL is problematic, while sitting back in the hope that pro-regime forces retake them could be just as bad: given the regime’s chronic manpower shortage, its efforts there would likely rely upon the collective punishment tactics and Shiite foreign fighters that have become pillars of its military strategy. These potentially could provide a recruiting and mobilization bonanza for what remains of ISIL and other jihadists, preparing the ground for their next insurgency. The seizure of these areas by a U.S.-backed coalition incorporating SDF and rebel forces appears preferable from Washington’s counter-terror perspective, and would also provide additional leverage vis-à-vis the regime and its backers that could be applied in any future negotiations addressing the broader Syria conflict.
But those benefits need to be weighed against the risks of escalation with Iran. If, after Raqqa, the U.S. decides to pursue the fight further down the Euphrates, it should steer clear of the pro-regime camp’s top priority — Deir al-Zour city — and focus instead on areas of the countryside and, potentially, the town of al-Mayadeen — to which ISIL has reportedly shifted fighters and senior figures as it loses ground elsewhere. In so doing, Washington should take care to frame its efforts as directed exclusively against ISIL. Further conflating its activity in Syria with a counter-Iran agenda — including a decisive resolution on who controls passage between Iraq and Syria — will only encourage Tehran to escalate.
All told, the steps outlined above entail additional U.S. engagement amid tricky geopolitical currents and in the weeds of local governance. This will cause headaches for U.S. officials, and might slow the current pace of eastward military gains. It may also disappoint those in Washington (and beyond) hoping to move confrontation with Iran to the top of the U.S. agenda. But these are prices worth paying today, so as to lower risk of a costlier jihadist resurgence tomorrow.
Noah Bonsey is Senior Analyst for Syria at International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organization.
Image: VOA Kurdish