On March 8, it was reported U.S. forces had arrived in Syria, marking a significant escalation of U.S. efforts in the country to loosen the Islamic State’s (IS) hold on Syrian land.
Specifically, U.S. military personnel will be supporting a force consisting of Syrian Arab and Kurdish militias liberating Raqqa, the de-facto capital of IS. This is a continuation of previous efforts to liberate areas IS uses as the head of their so-called caliphate, as I noted in my piece on Mosul back in Oct. 2016.
In order to truly understand what is going on in Raqqa at the moment, a review of the recent history and current political dynamics surrounding the Syrian city is in order.
When the peaceful demonstrations against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad turned violent after regime forces fired upon protesting civilians in 2011, Syrians began to flee cities undergoing conflict between regime and rebel forces. Many found their way to Raqqa, which became a sort of hotbed for rebel activity.
In 2013, rebels with the help of the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra, took control of Raqqa, highlighting the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. Ultimately, Raqqa was only under rebel control for a few short months, as IS fighters quickly relinquished control.
As noted earlier, the U.S. has significantly increased its troop commitment recently. These troops will be facilitating the training and technical assistance of the liberating force which is comprised of two groups: Syrian Arab volunteers and Kurdish militiamen.
The Kurds are a group the U.S. worked with before in combating IS, so it’s no surprise to see them playing a role in this operation. However, this role is hotly contested by the Turkish government. As a reminder, the Kurds are an ethnic minority in countries such as Turkey, Iraq and Syria that desire semi-autonomy — partial self-governance.
This is something the Turkish government fiercely rejects, and any effort seen as providing arms or training to the Kurds is seen as a threat to Turkey. A ethno-nationalist group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been engaged in conflict with Turkey for decades now. As a result of the Kurds role in this liberation effort, Turkey has elected to withdraw its support.
Admittedly, it is difficult to judge whetherthe decision to allow significant Kurdish contribution to this effort is a beneficial move in the long run. While Kurds are one of our greatest and most efficient allies combating IS today, they are political actors with goals beyond defeating IS. This excellent article from Vox does a good job of explaining the predicament we find ourselves in concerning the Kurds.
The Kurdish desire for autonomy can potentially be a threat to state rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Syria. In the already semi-autonomous Kurdish regions of Iraq, there are contentions between Iraqis and Kurds over oil resources located on the border between Iraqi and Kurdish territory. These kinds of disagreements can be extremely detrimental to weak states like Iraq and Syria.
The battle to reclaim Raqqa will be ramping up in the coming weeks. In the case of Mosul, the threat of lingering sectarian violence is something we may face as the city becomes more and more liberated. We see a similar issue arise in the case of Raqqa; we have to be vigilant as to how the political factions across Iraq, Syria, and the Kurdish regions within, react to the aftermath.
We are coming to a sort of potential tipping point in this region of the Middle East that could color the conflicts for several years down the road, and it is imperative we monitor the situation closely.