Pentagon plan for Raqqa proposes increasing support for SDF, shuts door on Turkey

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters in the north of Raqqa, February 2017

The US will provide arms supplies, artillery, attack helicopters and more US special operations forces for the assault on Islamic State (IS) stronghold Raqqa, to be led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Washington Post has reported.

The White House had given the Pentagon 30 days at the beginning of February to rework the previous plan for capturing the IS stronghold in Syria. The plan, now on President Donald Trump’s table for a review, would increase the level of US participation in the Raqqa operation according to official sources and shut the door on Turkish participation.

The plan does not seem to ditch the previous Obama administration plan but rather removes obstacles preventing increased US presence in Syria and support of the Kurdish-Arab SDF. The already 500 strong team of US advisors and specialists could thus grow but commentators rule out the possibility of ground troops on the front lines against IS.

The events of the past couple of days have put the US and Russia on the same side in terms of objectives, as neither of the two wants to see an attack on SDF-controlled Manbij by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups. Both states have called for the focus to remain on defeating IS.

According to the Washington Post the US does not want to see the creation of a new military front around Manbij that would “drain both attention and resources away from plans for Raqqa”.

US talks with Turkey, which is a NATO ally and coalition member are U.S. talks with Turkey, a NATO ally and coalition member, are ongoing. But events over the past several days in and around the town of Manbij have injected a new element in the conflict that could either help the Americans avoid a direct clash with Ankara, or set the many forces now converging on the town on the path toward a new confrontation.

Moscow brokered a deal with the Manbij Military Council, a faction in the SDF, which allowed the Russians to move into the territory west of Manbij with Syrian government troops blocking the Turkey led Euphrates Shield coming from al-Bab. The US did not seem to mind, and is reportedly safeguarding the northern parts of the town with armoured vehicles spotted doing rounds in areas between SDF and FSA.

A tweet, later deleted, from the US-led International Coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve surprised many as it said an operation against IS in Palmyra was carried out by “CJTF-OIR supported partner forces,” referring it seemed to Russian and Syrian government troops.

US Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the head of the Combined Joint Task Force against the IS, recently said that the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) is now the majority group with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and not the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The US has also said the Manbij Military Council consists of Arab fighter and that the YPG has more or less left the city. On Wednesday Townsend said there was “zero evidence” that the YPG was a threat to Turkey.

Time will tell if these words console Ankara or not but it seems certain that Turkey would have to accept increased US support for the SDF and possibly also be completely left out from the operation due to Ankara’s reluctancy to accept Kurdish presence.

The Pentagon’s Raqqa plan is awaiting White House approval.