Outlining the Raqqa puzzle Obama leaves unfinished as he exits the Oval Office, Gordon and Smith illuminate the contradictions of the administration's war in Syria.
The U.S. can't conquer Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State, without the radical, anarcho-feminist Syrian Kurd fighters of the YPG. The YPG must be armed for urban combat and then backed up by U.S. Apache helicopters equipped with Hellfire missiles. But to arm the Syrian Kurds risks almost certain reprisal from Turkey, including the possibility of a Turkish invasion of Rojava.
The CIA favors sidelining the YPG (see the Barzani quote below) by fabricating a larger force comprised of Turkish troops and Iraqi Pesh Merga. But the Pentagon knows that these CIA-engineered militias are more PR than actual fighting units. So it is insisting on the YPG. Obama will likely dither and punt it to Trump. And Trump, no anarcho-feminist, will probably want to curry favor with Erdogan. Then again Trump's administration is heavy with Pentagon brass, and Trump is none too keen on the CIA these days. So maybe Rojava has a shot.
But arming the Kurds would also aggravate Mr. Obama’s tense relations with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has contended that the Y.P.G. is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey and the United States regard as a terrorist group.
The administration has been considering ways to ease Turkey’s anxiety, such as making arrangements to monitor the weapons given to the Syrian Kurds for the Raqqa offensive and thus prevent the weapons from being used elsewhere by the Kurds. In addition, Arab forces would occupy Raqqa after the city is taken, and Kurdish fighters would be withdrawn.
The United States also recently began carrying out airstrikes near Al Bab, a town in northern Syria that Turkey has been struggling to take from the Islamic State.
But American diplomats in Ankara, the Turkish capital, have warned that providing weapons to the Y.P.G. could provoke a Turkish backlash, officials say. Not only might it cause a deep breach in the United States’ relations with Mr. Erdogan, but the Turks might take actions against the Y.P.G. in northern Syria that could ultimately undermine the offensive to retake Raqqa.
Anticipating Mr. Obama’s decision, the Turks have been quietly increasing the pressure by delaying approval for American air missions that are flown from the Turkish air base at Incirlik and supplies going in and out of the base. Incirlik has been a major hub for carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey’s sensitivity on the issue was clear last week when the United States Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, posted a statement on Twitter by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the umbrella group that includes Syrian Kurds as well as Syrian Arab fighters, affirming that it is not part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party as “some regional governments” have claimed.
“Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses,” Ibrahim Kalin, Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman, responded on Twitter.
Faced with the dilemma, some administration officials have suggested that American officials go back to the drawing board and try to cobble together a more diverse force to take Raqqa that would include Turkish Special Forces as well as Turkish-supported Syrian opposition groups. American commanders say about 20,000 troops will be needed to seize the city. By contrast, Turkey has been able to muster only about 2,000 Arab fighters in its battle to reclaim Al Bab, and that campaign has been bogged down by fierce resistance.
During a visit to Washington last month, Masrour Barzani, a top security official in the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, pressed American officials to work with Syrian Kurds who are separate from the Y.P.G. and are operating in Iraq, a group known as Pesh Merga of Rojava, or Roj Pesh. Aides to Mr. Barzani assert that the Roj Pesh are trained by the pesh merga, would be politically acceptable to the Turks and number about 3,300.
“Roj Pesh are the most efficient and politically diverse force,” Mr. Barzani said. “They can be the bridge to lessen regional tensions and a force multiplier in the campaign.”
But Pentagon officials say that the Y.P.G. has the most effective fighters, is already closing in on Raqqa, and that trying to assemble, train and equip an alternative force could be difficult and at best would take many months.