The fight against ISIS in Syria has made significant progress, but it is important to acknowledge the challenges ahead and the disadvantageous knock-on effects of certain aspects of our strategy. The big challenge looming ahead is the fight for Raqqa, and the major issue at hand is who our local partners are for that battle. Until now, the United States has demonstrated a clear preference for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (the YPG) and allied militias and tribes, collectively known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The favored status given to the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (the PYD) has created serious issues with NATO ally Turkey, as it claims the PYD and YPG are affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK), with whom it has fought a sustained war since the late 1970s. The United States has recognized the PKK as a designated terrorist organization since 1997. Turkey does have a point here. After all, the YPG was established by the brother of the PKK’s God-like leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and the majority of the YPG’s most senior and impactful leaders in Syria today owe their allegiance to the PKK’s transnational leadership structure, known as the KCK. In fact, the United States government’s very own National Counter-Terrorism Center accepted this much in its annual profiles of designated terrorist organizations, stating clearly in 2014 that the PYD was the “Syrian affiliate” of the PKK. Upon beginning our relationship with the PYD and YPG, however, that paragraph was removed from the NCTC profile in 2015 and 2016.
The United States needs Turkey to be a constructive partner on Syria’s northern border, if we are to ever successfully defeat the terrorist threats emanating from there. As such, laudable efforts have been undertaken to recruit Arab tribes into the SDF, but contrary to much of the reporting on the issue, the YPG retains overwhelming influence over the SDF’s tactics, strategy and outcomes. Moreover, for Arabs to join the SDF, the YPG precludes their inclusion by providing them with ideological training, in which certain revolutionary Marxist ideals are fused with the unique ideology developed by PKK leader Ocalan himself. Those who insufficiently buy into the PKK’s ideology are said to receive little responsibility on the battlefield. The YPG does nothing to hide its hostility to Turkey either, including in the presence of American soldiers. The YPG also maintains ambiguous relations with the Assad regime. One strategically important town, Manbij, which was captured with U.S. military support, has since been effectively handed over to the Assad regime by the YPG. A YPG-led victory in Raqqa would almost certainly lead to a similar result, which itself would embolden ISIS and al-Qaida in a very big way and create the conditions for a further zone of complex conflict.
The United States does not need to rush our push to Raqqa. Doing so risks achieving the short term objective – the city’s capture – but securing groups like ISIS with an invaluable narrative victory. The United States should use its significant diplomatic leverage with Turkey to push for consideration of a cease-fire with the PKK inside Turkey, which may help ease tensions with the YPG across the border in Syria. As part of a package deal with Turkey, the United States could offer to include a select portion of its anti-Assad forces – the majority of which have already been vetted either by the CIA or by CENTCOM – into a broader offensive on Raqqa. This would be a similar arrangement to that worked out for Mosul, where zones of responsibility were prearranged between rival or competing factions.
While our eyes have been fixed firmly on the threat posed by ISIS, al-Qaida’s presence in Syria has thrived. Whereas ISIS has consistently sought to act alone and has aggressively avoided working with others, al-Qaida has sought to deeply embed itself into Syria’s broad, opposition movement. It has constantly adapted its narrative to fit those of much of the opposition and it has studiously avoided many of the extremist practices typically associated with al-Qaida. This use of what I call “controlled pragmatism” has allowed it to methodically socialize more and more people into first accepting its presence within their midst, and then to supporting it. That many opposition Syrians – and indeed many people across the Middle East – see it in a different way than al-Qaida of the past, means that it has attracted a significant number of Syrian recruits who do not yet buy into the transnational jihadist ideal. Instead, they have merely chosen to join a popular group with a very successful track record on the battlefield.
This very marked difference from how ISIS has operated means that countering al-Qaida in Syria necessitates the use of a very different tool kit. In a sense, this is a struggle defined by a competition for narrative victory. Six years of brutal violence in Syria, paired with a total lack of determined international action to put a stop to it, has provided al-Qaida with an increasingly pliable population seemingly devoid of alternatives. Sustained levels of conflict have also given al-Qaida the opportunity to consistently exploit its principal advantage: its power in battle. Stronger international action aimed at protecting civilians and punishing regime war crimes, paired with a substantial reduction in conflict represents a very serious threat to al-Qaida. It was not a coincidence that the entirety of Syria’s opposition welcomed and praised the recent cruise missile strikes and only al-Qaida issued a rebuke.
Taking away al-Qaida’s narrative dominance can help deal with its popularity, which by extension, may give many desperate Syrians the confidence to embrace alternatives other than al-Qaida. Pursuing the above mentioned actions will also set into motion a chain of events that would likely lead to al-Qaida isolating itself as it acted in ways to protect its base. We have seen this happen before, on a much smaller scale.
Greater pressure, however, is needed on its most powerful area of operations: the province of Idlib. This is a problem that only Turkey is well placed to tackle, though it would require substantial U.S. support and protection. In August 2016, the Turkish military crossed into northern Aleppo’s countryside alongside allied opposition groups to seek two objectives: the localized defeat of ISIS and the establishment of a buffer zone, preventing the YPG from sealing a contiguous swathe of territory. In so doing, Turkey catalyzed a total withdrawal of al-Qaida forces from northern Aleppo, as the group openly refused to cooperate with any foreign government or to align itself with U.S.-backed opposition forces, which Turkey was using.
As that zone of territory steadily expanded, it also grew into a de facto safe zone, as neither Russia nor the Assad regime dared fly over it and risk targeting Turkish troops. In the time since, this swathe of territory that now measures 110km by 60km (60×40 miles), has received substantial sums of financial support for re-development and re-building. Tens of thousands of refugees have crossed from Turkey back into Syria and with Turkish pressure, populated areas are now being vacated by armed opposition groups and law and order is being assumed by Turkish trained Syrian civilian police forces. The area has also become home to at least 14 separate opposition military facilities, in which Turkish special forces are training Free Syrian Army affiliated groups for future operations. The U.S. recognized Syrian opposition Interim Government now plans to establish in-country offices in this area.
The evacuation of al-Qaida from northern Aleppo has since proven permanent and I believe it could be replicated on a smaller scale in Idlib territory positioned along Turkey’s border. With U.S. assistance and a resumption of military support to U.S. vetted opposition groups active in the area, we have an opportunity to create a reality on the ground that is both safe and moderate. This would be an inkspot strategy with risks, but the potential benefits could be significant. This too would set into motion a chain of events that would likely lead to al-Qaida further isolating itself, as it acted in ways to protect its base. Only then would the United States have a clearer idea of who the genuinely committed transnational jihadists were, and where to target them.
Counter-Terrorism: Shiite militants
Finally, the United States must also more clearly acknowledge the presence of other, non-Sunni terrorist organizations in Syria, and to work more determinedly to constrain their freedom of operation. Hezbollah is the most notable terrorist group in this case, but there are others, too. Throughout the last administration’s diplomatic attempts alongside Russia to introduce cessations of hostilities in Syria, Hezbollah and other designated organizations like Kataib Hezbollah were treated as legitimate actors, while al-Qaida and ISIS were excluded. Beyond the issue of the PKK, this inconsistency in policy weakens our hand enormously.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
This is an excerpt from Middle East Institute Senior Fellow Charles Lister’s written testimony to the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs at their hearing “Syria After the Missile Strikes: Policy Options” on April 27, 2017. Watch the full hearing here.
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