A Raqqa plan in the Making

Turkey has presented two proposals to the United States for how to carry out a joint military operation to drive Islamic State from its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Turkish newspaper reported.

Ankara has said repeatedly that the planned operation should be conducted by local Arab forces, possibly with support from Turkish troops, as opposed to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) — an alliance dominated by Kurdish YPG militia.

Washington’s support for the SDF, which launched a campaign to encircle Raqqa in November, has caused tension with NATO-ally Turkey. Ankara views the Kurdish militia as an extension of militants fighting on its own soil.

It is not yet clear whether the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump will provide weapons to the YPG despite Turkey’s objections. The U.S. says arms provided to the SDF are so far limited to its Arab elements but Ankara says they are going to Kurdish militia and is asking for a halt.

Speaking during a trip to Germany, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said there would be “serious issues” for ties with the United States if Washington partnered with Kurdish militia for the Raqqa operation against Islamic State.

“We’ve told them one terrorist organization can not be used to fight another. I believe the new U.S. administration will take these assessments into consideration,” he told reporters.

Military Chiefs Meet In a meeting at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, a key hub for the U.S.-led coalition against the jihadists, Turkish military chief Hulusi Akar and his U.S. counterpart Joseph Dunford discussed the two Raqqa road maps, citing security sources.

Ankara’s preferred plan of action envisages Turkish and U.S. special forces, backed by commandoes and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels entering Syria through the border town of Tel Abyad, currently held by Kurdish YPG militia, the newspaper said.

The forces would cut through YPG territory, before pushing on to Raqqa, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south.

Such a plan would require the United States to convince the Kurdish militia to grant the Turkey-backed forces a 20-kilometre (12-mile)-wide strip through YPG territory, the paper said.

The SDF alliance, which includes Arab and other groups in Syria’s north as well as the YPG, controls swathes of territory along the Syria-Turkey border as they push back Islamic State.

Yildirim said Turkish forces would not be directly involved in combat but would provide tactical support. Both the Turkish and U.S. military would have a ground presence, he added.

A second alternative outlined by Akar to Dunford was to push toward Raqqa via the Syrian town of Bab, Hurriyet reported, which Turkey-backed forces have been fighting to seize from Islamic State for the past two months.

But the long journey of 180 kilometers (about 110 miles) and mountainous terrain make that possibility less likely, it said.

Road to Raqqa

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) would collaborate to liberate Daesh-held Raqqa, along with Manbij, which is held by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

“Al-Bab is not our final target. So far, we have neutralized over 3,000 Daesh terrorists. The main center of Daesh is not Al-Bab, but Raqqa. The ultimate goal is to cleanse a 5,000-square-km area,” Erdogan said at the time.

Turkish press, citing security sources, reported that Ankara has two plans in how to cooperate with the US. One is to work with US special forces, with the support of Turkey-backed moderate fighters, and enter Syria through Kurdish-held Tal Abyad before pushing south toward Raqqa, which would require the green light from Kurdish elements.

The other option, seen as less likely because of the inhospitable topography and the longer route, is to push on to Raqqa through the Syrian town of Al-Bab, where Turkey has been fighting with Daesh for the last two months.

There are two key options in the drive to liberate the Daesh-held city — and neither is perfect.

Metin Gurcan, an ex-military officer and security analyst at the Istanbul Policy Center, said a potential Raqqa operation would involve a very complicated web of relations compared to the Mosul operation. That is because of the presence of many global and local actors, which heightens the risk of clashes.

According to Gurcan, the US particularly needs Turkey’s presence in the Raqqa operation for symbolic and demographic reasons.

“It is of key importance to have Sunni elements on the ground for ensuring the legitimacy of the operation,” Gurcan told Arab News.

“Raqqa is almost totally composed of Sunni Arabs. So any US operation in that city should win hearts and minds of Sunni Arab tribes. At this point, Turkey is strongly needed to convince those segments,” he added.

Oytun Orhan, a researcher focusing on Syria at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, said Turkey’s proposal to the US includes forming a broad military coalition composed of about 10,000 troops and excluding Kurdish militia.

Orhan said that the likelihood of the Turkish Army advancing east after Al-Bab is very low as such a move could lead to clashes with the Syrian regime, Iran-backed militias or accidental targeting of Turkish troops by Russia, as has been seen in the past.

“The Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias are already advancing from the south of Al-Bab to cut the Euphrates Shield’s possible advance east,” he said.

Orhan also said that a Turkish incursion into Raqqa through the Turkish border town of Akcakale would also be risky as it would almost certainly lead to clashes with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, and Turkish forces would need to go through a 20 km-long insecure corridor.

Orhan suggested that the US would try to find a solution that will satisfy Turkey without leaving the YPG out in the cold. Such a plan could involve giving the YPG a role in the liberation of Raqqa, but with the guarantee that it will not stay in the city, leaving Arab parties to administer it.

Experts also underline a significant risk of Daesh and PKK-related terror attacks in Turkey following the country’s direct involvement in any Raqqa operation.