US Steps Up its War in Syria — and Maybe Beyond
BEIRUT — US-backed Syrian forces said they had completed the capture of the strategic Euphrates River town of Tabqa, its airbase and the county’s largest dam on May 10 after weeks of combat, opening the way for a final assault on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the shrinking Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq.
With the inevitable fall of ISIS’s last major urban stronghold in Syria expected in the months ahead, the United States will have achieved one of its key objectives in the war against the jihadists, which for Washington takes priority over the wider Syrian conflict.
However, by actively intervening in the complex Syrian conflict, the United States has also ensnared itself in the region’s deadly cobweb of sectarian rivalries that it has sought to avoid after disastrous American military adventures in the Middle East over three decades.
Turkey, a key NATO ally, will be the main problem. Ankara bitterly opposes the United States’ support and arming of the 50,000-strong Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to conquer Raqqa, a predominantly Sunni Arab city 40km east of Tabqa.
This underlines the shifting strategic equation across the entire Middle East far beyond the Syrian carnage, particularly a looming confrontation with expansionist Iran that could determine the region’s future.
“Washington is focusing on tactical feel-good wins while ignoring the messy day-after politics and thus risking long-term losses,” observed analyst James Jeffrey of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Now, he said, US President Donald Trump “faces a possible confrontation with NATO ally Turkey — economically and militarily the strongest state in the region and irreplaceable in any strategy to contain Iran.”
Turkey, which has ambitions to expand its influence, fears the emergence of a Syrian Kurdish statelet on its southern border and claims the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF, is an arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been waging a separatist insurgency in Anatolia since 1984.
Ankara launched air strikes against the YPG in April, killing several dozen fighters, and has threatened tougher action that could conceivably thrust Turkey into open conflict with US forces.
The US administration’s decision to provide the YPG with heavy weapons and sensitive high-tech equipment, reportedly including 120mm mortars, .50-calibre machine guns and Stryker armoured vehicles, for the Raqqa operation has incensed Turkey, which of late has been aligning itself with other outside powers engaged in Syria, such as Russia and Iran.
Even with the additional weaponry, the SDF faces a tough battle, and possibly a long one, to retake Raqqa. ISIS is well dug in and using mobile suicide squads, armed drones and extensive tunnels and minefields. The jihadists could hold out for weeks at least.
Raqqa, however, is expected to fall in the end, as is Mosul, ISIS’s last major urban bastion in Iraq — although such victories are not likely to mean the end of ISIS or of the upheavals in Syria or Iraq.
The US military presence in Syria is officially limited to some 500 “advisers” but under the new and largely untested US administration of President Donald Trump, there has been a steady buildup of American military personnel, including more special forces teams, elite Army Rangers and Marine Corps artillery units.
These, Washington maintains, consist of about 500 personnel but the number of US combatants is likely to be substantially higher.
It does not include the ground-based personnel operating at least five US airbases in northern Syria and neighbouring Iraq, two of them for Apache attack helicopters that would be crucial against ISIS.
These bases include a large airfield at Kobane, 140km north of Raqqa. It has been expanded by the US Air Force with hardened runways to take four-engine C-130 transports and even the giant C-17, carrying equipment such as armoured vehicles and artillery or a significant number of troops if the crisis deteriorates.
Russia, which has a combat air wing based near Latakia since Moscow’s armed intervention in September 2015, is eyeing the US operation warily.
The new air bases “will enable the US to deploy twice as many warplanes and helicopters in Syria as the Russians currently maintain,” observed analyst Andrei Akulov of the Strategic Culture Foundation, a Moscow think-tank.
There are wider, longer-term perils looming once ISIS loses its key citadels as the region’s warring powers grab what they can “in the larger carving up of the Levant following the Islamic State’s inevitable demise,” observed Jeffrey.
Turkey’s air strikes against the YPG along with the threat of more to come and recent Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah arms depots outside Damascus are “chess moves in the larger game,” he wrote in a May 9 assessment.
This involves “efforts by the Turks, Israelis, Iraqi Kurds, the region’s Sunni Arab majority and (they all hope) the United States to push back against an Iranian- and Russian-led upheaval of the regional order,” Jeffrey said.
Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
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