While the U.S.-backed campaign to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq makes slow but steady progress, the battle for Raqqa, Syria, the “capital” of the group’s self-styled caliphate, has gotten off to a much shakier start, with various factions of the U.S.-backed coalition already at odds.
Arab and Kurdish factions of the Syrian Defense Forces, the umbrella coalition of militia groups in the country picked by Washington to spearhead the assault on Raqqa, have begun peeling off from the main force as they inch closer to the city, U.S. defense officials said.
Meanwhile, Turkey continues its own thinly veiled drive toward the Islamic State’s capital, pressing into the Syrian city of al-Bab, 100 miles west of Raqqa.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has refused to acknowledge the Raqqa operation, led by the Kurdish-Arab joint force.
The Pentagon on Wednesday announced that U.S. commanders are withholding air support for the Turkish advance, saying the move is not in line with the U.S.-backed coalition’s battle plan against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“It’s a mess up there,” one U.S. defense official told The Washington Times last week, regarding the increasingly chaotic situation facing the U.S.-backed Syrian coalition moving on Raqqa.
A large number of Syrian Kurdish members of the People’s Protection Unit, also known as YPG, have abandoned the 30,000-member assault force, which began its drive toward the Islamic State capital on Nov. 6, a second U.S. defense official told The Times.
Those YPG fighters from the Afrin district of northern Aleppo began leaving the Raqqa operation, dubbed Euphrates Rage, after Turkish forces stepped up their attacks on the besieged district.
Ankara ordered airstrikes, heavy artillery and mortar strikes against YPG units in Afrin in September. As the armed faction of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, which Turkey recognizes as a terrorist organization.
The Syrian Arab faction of the SDF is faring no better, according to reports. A week into the Raqqa operation, top officials from the Raqqa Revolutionary Brigade said they were dropping out of the offensive.
The group’s political officer, Mahmoud Hadi, told the Middle East Eye this month that U.S. advisers were sidelining Arab factions of the coalition in favor of Kurdish elements.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter lauded the kickoff of the Raqqa campaign this month, noting that the operation “marks the next step in our coalition campaign plan.”
“As in Mosul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead, but it is necessary to end the fiction of ISIL’s caliphate” in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe, Mr. Carter said in a statement issued Sunday.
The Pentagon remains publicly confident that the Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries fighting toward Raqqa as part of the U.S. coalition will remain intact.
Syrian coalition forces “will be part of not only the effort to isolate Raqqa, but ultimately the force that helps to take Raqqa and hold Raqqa,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said this month.
Coalition forces in Syria have retaken more than 120 square miles of Islamic State territory in roughly three weeks of fighting, Col. John Dorrian, the top spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters at the Pentagon last week.
On Sunday, former CIA chief Michael V. Hayden said the U.S.-backed campaigns in Iraq and Syria were “actually in a good place right now.”
“I think we have been late and light, underresourced, overregulated. But we’re actually going to squeeze them” now, he said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “They are going to end existence as the Islamic State.”
The U.S. administration’s decision to back Kurdish fighters allied with the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State could upend a long-term position in the region, said a former head of the Turkish military.
The Pentagon’s decision to rebuff Ankara’s offer to assist U.S.-backed Syrian forces to retake the strategically key city of Manbij earlier this year, instead moving on the city with the help of YPG forces, was a mistake, Gen. Ilker Basbug, retired chief of the Turkish Army’s General Staff, told a small group of reporters Wednesday in Washington.
“Tactically, that might have been the right decision,” Gen. Basbug said, but the public outcry over the decision in Turkey forced Mr. Erdogan to begin taking steps toward unilateral action in Syria and Iraq.
“They were putting us in the same basket,” said Gen. Basbug, explaining the reaction of Turkey, as a NATO member, being lumped in with the YPG as potential U.S. allies.
He said recent Turkish actions — basing forces in northern Iraq, launching a Syrian offensive beginning with retaking the city of Jarabulus in September and the operation in al-Bab — can all be tracked back to Washington’s decision in Manbij, Gen. Basbug said.
“Maybe we might have a different picture of Syria now” if U.S. commanders took up Ankara’s offer many months ago, the former Turkish general said.