Will Turkey take part in Raqqa liberation operations after meeting US diplomats?

Will Turkey take part in Raqqa liberation operations after meeting US diplomats?
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan holds a news conference after the closing of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 5, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has declared its intention to launch an assault on ISIS-held Raqqa, while the US made statements urging Turkey, which is a key player in the group, to take part in the operations.

Raqqa has been the Syrian capital of the extremist group of “Islamic State” after it fell to its control since 2014. Since then, Raqqa has been a start point of ISIS’s operations in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

The SDF, a group comprising mainly of Kurdish armed groups fighting in Syria, said at a press conference on Sunday the offensive to reclaim the de facto capital of Islamic State (ISIS) would begin on Saturday.

However, Turkey is not expected to take part in Raqqa operations, as it has been holding its own military operation called “Euphrates Shield” against both ISIS and the Kurdish militias in Syria.

“On this occasion, we call on the international community and regional forces to coordinate and take part in the operation to exterminate ISIS,” an SDF official said before announcing the US would offer air support in the offensive.

“We also call on international humanitarian and relief agencies to perform their duties for the people in Raqqa after the city has been liberated.”

Announcing the “Wrath of the Euphrates” operation, the SDF said they hoped Turkey would not “interfere in internal Syrian affairs”.

On the other hand, Turkish officials including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have said they will not accept a role for the Kurds in the liberation of Raqqa.

The SDF fighters called on civilians to stay away from areas in which ISIS fighters are known to be, and to try to run to “liberated” areas of the country.

The SDF statement said the operation aimed to “isolate and then topple the capital of international terrorism”, indicating an initial phase aimed to surround Raqqa before any move to seize it. No time frame was given.

Kurdish militias were able to retrieve Manbij city along with many other areas from ISIS control earlier this year. However, they are being accused of planning a demographic change in the areas they take over.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in September that Ankara is open to the idea of conducting a joint military operation with the US to free the Islamic State group’s stronghold of Raqqa.

In parallel with the Kurdish announcement, American, and Turkish military leaders have agreed to develop a long-term plan for “seizing, holding and governing” the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa in northern Syria on Sunday.

“The coalition and Turkey will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa,” Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said.

Sunday’s meeting reinforced a longstanding agreement that the US-led coalition would not move ahead with the seizure of Raqqa, “without incorporating the Turks and their perspective into our plans,” according to Dunford.

The Turkish army said in a statement that the military heads had discussed “the methods of a common struggle” against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, “especially in Al Bab and Raqqa in coming days.”

The US administration knows will the exact goals of the Kurdish militias’ operations against ISIS, though they keep supporting the conflicting sides in a try to keep them all under control.

Dunford said: “We always knew the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa.

“What we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation.”

He said the US would work with Turkey to determine the composition of the forces that would seize and govern the territory, he said.

Turkish-Kurdish tension

Turkey is not expected to take part in Raqqa operations, as it has been holding its own military operation called “Euphrates Shield” against both ISIS and the Kurdish militias in Syria.

Turkey operations started on August 24 alongside allied rebel forces who have managed to retake the ISIS stronghold of Jarabulus, alongside with al-Rai to the west and Dabiq city. Turkey also attacked the Kurdish militias ordering them to withdraw from East Euphrates region. Many clashes erupted between the two alliances and recently Turkey said it will force Kurdish militias out of Manbij.

Turkish officials including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have said they will not accept a role for the Kurds in the liberation of Raqqa.

Syrian rebels were able to retrieve Jarablus town from ISIS and opened a new front to the west of al-Rai village, putting more pressure on ISIS militants from the both sides and securing the Syrian-Turkish border from the militants’ presence.

Syrian rebels retrieve Dabiq town also from ISIS, paving the way to attack al-Bab city near Aleppo.

The rebels have since extended those gains and now control an area of roughly 1,270 square km (490 square miles) in northern Syria.

The Turkish military also shelled Kurdish militias’ positions northern Syria while the rebel forces clashed with them in many incidents.

Ankara sees the opportunity for cooperation with the US as a chance to kill two birds with one stone that will both hit Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdish militias.

“Obama wants us to do something together about Raqqa in particular,” Erdogan said in September.

“We told him there wouldn’t be a problem on our part. Let our soldiers get together and they can do whatever is necessary,” Erdogan told the reporters.

Concrete proposals for action will have to be worked out separately, Erdogan added. “But at this stage, we have to show our presence in the region,” he said. “We do not have the chance to take a backward step. If we take a backward step terror groups like ISIS, PKK, PYD and YPG will settle there,” he stressed.

Turkey sees the PYD and their armed wing YPG as an extension of Kurdish PKK militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

The US and EU also list the PKK as a terrorist organisation, but the US sees the PYD and YPG as its main allies on the ground against IS.

Turkey fears the YPG will try to connect three de facto autonomous Kurdish cantons that have emerged during the five-year war to create a Kurdish-run enclave in northern Syria, stoking the separatist ambitions of Kurds on its own soil.

Kurdish militias or ISIS ?

The autonomous federation being planned by Syrian Kurdish parties and their allies is taking shape fast: a constitution should be finalised in three months, and possibly sooner, to be followed quickly by-elections, a Kurdish official said.

The political federation for northern Syria builds on three self-ruled regions carved out by the YPG since Syria descended into conflict in 2011 in an uprising to topple President Bashar al-Assad. It has already grown, expanding last year to include the town of Tel Abyad that was captured from Islamic State by the YPG in October.

In fact, Kurdish militias use US support to launch offensives against new areas under the term of fighting ISIS, while the force the Arab citizens to flee their homes, so the Kurdish militias can force control over new areas and add it to their contons.

They are accused of making ethnic crimes against Arab citizens in northern Syria.

Syrian Kurdish groups have made no secret of their aim to link up their two autonomous regions, or cantons, in northeastern Syria with one further west – Afrin. All that’s preventing them is the 80 km stretch of territory at the Turkish border held by IS near Manbij and further west by Turkey-backed rebel groups that are hostile to the YPG.

The plan had taken on even greater significance since the Syria Democratic Forces alliance, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, mounted a rapid new advance westwards this month into Islamic State’s last foothold at the Turkish border.