- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have dramatically stepped up their attack on the Islamic State in recent weeks, just as the Trump administration is reportedly offering Turkey a larger military role in the assault on the terrorist group’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, two developments that could transform the battle against the Islamic State in its Syrian stronghold.

President Trump, in his long-awaited first call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since taking office, discussed a deal to allow the country’s special operations forces to participate in the Raqqa assault, according to sources and local reports.

But Mr. Assad’s efforts to help isolate Raqqa from the Syrian city of al Bab, which has been under the terrorist group’s sway since 2014, could further complicate the constellation of regional military and militia forces battling the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.

Further, the success of Syrian-led operations around al Bab could give the emboldened Assad regime an opening to secure a military role in the coalition’s push toward Raqqa, which could significantly affect the looming battle for the Islamic State capital, senior regional analysts say.

“The U.S. has always had three offers to take Raqqa, [and] it does not like any of them,” said Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, regarding cooperation with Turkish, Syrian or Kurdish forces.

The Syrian operation to seize the high ground surrounding the main thoroughfare linking al Bab to Raqqa was unprecedented, Air Force Col. John Dorian, the top U.S. spokesman for the coalition mission in Iraq and Syria, said Wednesday. Fox News reported that Mr. Assad is benefiting from an infusion of arms from Moscow as Russian President Vladimir Putin reduces his forces in the country.

Prior to the al Bab offensive, Mr. Assad’s forces “were focused on Aleppo, and there really wasn’t any significant ISIL presence in that city. So, it’s probably fair to characterize it” as unprecedented, Col. Dorian told reporters at the Pentagon.

“There’s not really anybody who’s for leaving ISIL in place unmolested [in Syria], so they’re going to get defeated by the coalition [and] other elements that are attacking them in other places,” he said during a briefing from Baghdad.

The fall of al Bab, combined with the Islamic State’s increasingly tenuous hold on its Iraqi capital of Mosul, would leave Raqqa as the terrorist group’s only major territorial base in the Middle East — a far cry from the budding “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria at the height of the Islamic State’s power in 2014.

Mr. Assad’s offensive in al Bab comes as Turkey and the Trump administration have apparently reached a deal to join forces in the Raqqa offensive. Washington and Ankara have agreed in principle to allow Turkish special operations units and Turkish-trained militias to fight alongside the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, according to regional reports.

Making Turkey ‘happy’

Officially, U.S. officials gave little details of what has been agreed to. Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan discussed their “close, long-standing relationship between the United States and Turkey and their shared commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms,” according to a White House statement on the call.

Pentagon officials told The Washington Times that negotiations are continuing between the U.S. and Turkey on the country’s potential role in Raqqa, along with providing additional arms and equipment to Kurdish fighters.

“We are doing what we can do to make our NATO ally happy,” a defense official said regarding the nature of those discussions, noting that no official decision had been made.

But Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told Turkey’s NTV that the Turkish president asked Mr. Trump not to back the Syrian Kurds and presented a plan in which allies could retake Raqqa without the Kurdish fighters.

Mr. Trump’s “general reactions were positive,” Mr. Kalin said, according to The Associated Press.

Accelerating arms supplies to Kurdish forces, increasing U.S. special operations forces in Syria and loosening the Obama administration-era rules of engagement that were designed to limit the number of estimated civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes are all part of Mr. Trump’s mandated 30-day review on the fight against the Islamic State.

Throwing U.S. military might behind Kurdish paramilitaries, including members of the People’s Protection Unit, also known as the YPG, would be a better bet for Mr. Trump than linking more tightly with Turkish forces, Mr. Landis said.

Turkish involvement in Syria is “only because they want to screw the Kurds,” he said, particularly the YPG.

Ankara considered the YPG, the armed faction of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a separatist, terrorist organization responsible for multiple attacks against military and police targets inside Turkey.

Conversely, Mr. Assad’s motivations behind his escalation of the campaign against the Islamic State “is pretty clear,” Mr. Landis said. “He wants to reconquer Syria.”

With Aleppo now firmly in the regime’s control, the fall of Raqqa could expand Mr. Assad’s control in that part of the country.

U.S. defense officials say any discussion of coordinating with the Assad regime in the fight against the Islamic State is off the table. That said, “just cause it is off the table it does not mean it will not happen” Mr. Landis said.

But Mr. Trump’s singular focus on destroying the Islamic State, whatever the cost, could make the administration more amenable to cooperating with Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies, one regional analyst said.

“During the Obama administration, there was a certain level of coordination with Syria, but the Obama administration was hesitant to say it out loud because it declared in the first place that Assad should go,” Mehmet Yegin, an analyst at the Ankara-based USAK think tank, told the Russian state-sponsored Sputnik News website.

“But the Trump administration does not have such a declaration so I think he will be less hesitant to work with Syria in this regard,” Mr. Yegin said.

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