Why the U.S. Should Team Up with the Kurds & Not Turkey to Take Raqqa and Destroy the Islamic State

Why the U.S. Should Team Up with the Kurds & Not Turkey to Take Raqqa and Destroy the Islamic State
By Joshua Landis
For Syria Comment – March 18, 2017

The problem with letting the Turks take Raqqa and presumably the entire Euphrates Valley that is now held by ISIS is that the Turks are endeavoring to hem in the Kurds. To do this, Turkey hopes to establish its Arab proxies in a new “Euphrates state” in eastern Syria. This would partition Syria into three states: a western Asad-ruled state; an eastern Turkish and Sunni Arab rebel-ruled state, and a northern Kurdish state.

Asad’s army has already taken a large swath of territory east of Aleppo, which cuts off Turkey’s access to Raqqa from al-Bab. Turkey has proposed taking Raqqa from the north at Tel Abyad. This approach would penetrate the Kurdish region at its middle and cut it in two. This objective of splitting the autonomous Kurdish region in two is the main reason Turkey offered to take Raqqa.

If the United States helps or allows Turkey to attack the Kurds at Tel Abyad, it will have no Kurdish allies to attack Raqqa or any other part of ISIS territory.

Why are the Kurds willing to take Raqqa even though they do not have territorial interests in and around Raqqa? They are investing in their relationship with the United States. They assume that it will serve them well over the long run when it comes to their political aspirations. They will get a lot of good training; they will get a dollop of heavy weaponry from the United States, which I doubt it can reclaim after the fight; they are building a command and control network for their force.  By the time this operation is over, one can guess that the Kurds of Syria will have four reasonably well trained, well organized, and well armed brigades that they did not have before.  One also suspects that there will be some military loot in Raqqa, which will fall their way.*

The second problem with having Turkey take this region is that its Arab rebel allies include Ahrar al-Sham (a deeply Salafist force, think the Taliban, which adamantly opposed to the US), the dominant militia in its panoply of Arab militias. Ahrar recently split in two, one half joining al-Qaida in Idlib and the other half joining the Turkish coalition of rebel groups, where it is dominant. If Turkey-Ahrar establish rebel rule over the Euphrates, it will become a haven for Salafists and possibly al-Qaida and the coalition of rebel forces now dominating Idlib province; the US has been bombing the al-Qaida leaders there. Turkey has worked with al-Qaida’s forces in Syria throughout the last five years. It allowed them to mass inside Turkey in 2013 when they spearheaded an invasion from Turkish territory into Kassab, north of Latakia. This region is known for its Armenian villages, the last traditional Armenian villages that were not ethnically cleansed by Turkey during WWI. All the Armenians of these villages fled in front of the rebel militias led by Nusra (al-Qaida’s wing in Syria). The churches were ransacked, old frescoes defaced, and crosses destroyed. Turkey does not mind Salafists being part of its Arab forces. Turkey is using these forces as proxies to thwart Kurdish ambitions.

The Turks are pitching their interest in liberating ISIS territory as a “local-Arabs-must-rule” campaign, but the Arabs whom it will be marshaling for its force are largely from Idlib and Aleppo provinces. These are agricultural regions quite different from the desert and tribal Euphrates. The accent and customs of both are different. It is not certain that Raqqans will embrace these new rulers as being among “their own” or as an exercise in self-rule. Of course, they are all Sunni Arabs. In all likelihood, they will risk being dominated by anti-American Salafist elements that will assert themselves and reintegrate al-Qaida members and possibly ISIS defectors back into their state. After all, much of the Euphrates valley was ruled by al-Qaida’s Nusra militia before ISIS split off from it and kicked out Nusra. These elements emerged from the local people. They will reemerge if Turkey tries to administer the region with a light touch, allowing local Arab proxies to take power. If Turkey were to decide to use “extreme vetting” of its Arab proxies to eliminate Salafists, it could do so, but the US should not count on it. Turkey has refused to do this in the past. Salafists are the best fighters and most organized and disciplined of the militias.

These, I believe, are the reasons that American generals do not want to work with Turkey. They don’t trust it, both because it wants to attack our Kurdish allies and because it is soft on al-Qaida-like rebel groups.

What is more, Iran, Russia, Asad, Iraq, and the Kurds will escalate against it. They will not allow the United States to sponsor a Sunni rebel enclave in the middle of their new “sphere of influence.” They will view it as an irredentist provocation bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and America to fire up Sunni resistance to Asad rule in Syria, Abadi’s rule in Iraq, and Kurdish rule in Rojava. The US would be expected to side with Turkey and the Sunni rebels in a long and escalating war against the Shiites. I think this is a swamp waiting to suck the United States into its malodorous depths.

Russia and Iran want to divide ISIS territory between the Kurds and the Syrian government that is led by Asad. The United States should allow this to happen if it wants an exit strategy. Such a strategy, of course, delivers the Euphrates basin back to Asad’s dictatorial rule and into the hands of authoritarian Kurdish rule. It will not be democratic. Asad will seek vengeance against those who rose up against him. This strategy does not promote the sort of representative democracy or human rights outcome the US is pledged to support. All the same, it will be the fastest way to bring stability, restore government services, and rebuild the region. The Syrian government will police against ISIS and Nusra as the Iraqi government does in Iraq. This is the best way to defeat ISIS and deny its territory to some Salafist redux.

To get Turkey to accept the Russian/American plan, Turkey will have to be reassured that Syrian Kurdistan will not be used as a staging ground for PKK forces to attack Turkey. Erdogan will need guarantees that Turkey’s Kurds will not be incited to break away and take eastern Anatolia with them. Restraining Syria’s Kurds is in the interest of the US, Russia, and Asad. If Syrian Kurds can be persuaded to limit their ambitions, as Iraqi Kurds have been, Turkey’s national integrity will not be threatened. This strategy is a gamble, but gambling on the Kurds to limit their ambitions to Rojava (Western Kurdistan) is less risky than gambling on Turkey to spearhead an invasion of Syria through Kurdistan and build a well-governed and peaceable Sunni state that limits its ambitions to the Euphrates valley.

This is why the United States should team up with the Kurds to destroy the Islamic State.

*I would like to thank Barry Posen and Charlie Kupchan for sharpening some of these arguments.

Comments (19)

Eugene said:

Once again, the failure of the democratization of the MENA by the U.S., is center stage. Like the old fairy tale about Humpty Dumpty, another country lies broken, with vultures circling to eat up the dead. The U.S. doesn’t learn lessons from its failures, it just bumbles along through stupidity & ignorance. Take away the toys of war of today and the proxies too, perhaps take out the so-called partners of the willing, then maybe there wouldn’t be these ugly results for the world to witness. Humankind is doomed to destroy its present form through the greed of domination by those who wield these war toys. Instead of moving forward in this new century, the world is repeating the 20th century, most likely to end with mushroom clouds over the earth.

March 17th, 2017, 10:07 pm


Alastair said:

I believe the author has a certain misunderstanding of the Syrian Kurds. Rojava’s autonomy is fully functioning, highly democratic and polyethnic, with an emphasis on minority rights. I can think of no other political environment on Earth right now that’s as democratic. How can it be “authoritarian” when its local citizens are organising their own society? There is no “Kurdish rule” in Syria. Rojava is northern Syria, and its self-administration is fully reflective of its ethnic mix, of whom Kurds form a majority in certain areas, a minority in others. That’s why it’s officially known as the Federation of Northern Syria. There is no ruling party, or tribal leader here. Russia has openly advocated Rojava’s style of autonomous self administration as a solution for the whole of Syria. It makes a lot of sense.

Turkey’s national integrity has never been threatened by Rojava. In fact, the Rojavans have stated their intent for friendly relations with Turkey many, many times. As for the Syrian Kurds’ ambition, again it’s examined through the prism of ethnicity, which is to miss its point. The democratic model is stateless, and based on localised autonomy. It’s a political system, not an ethnic one, that reflects the diversity of the region, and provides a blueprint for a wider peace.

Iraqi Kurdistan right now is entirely a different proposition, and can hardly be said to be limiting its ambitions given that its ruling KDP junta, entirely hostile to Rojava and allied with Turkey, is demanding independence from Iraq!

March 18th, 2017, 9:41 am


Joshua said:

Thanks for this, Alastair.

March 18th, 2017, 10:50 am


Richard Naff said:

The U.S., through the SDF, is presently recruiting a large contingent of Arab militias to fight IS in Raqqa; this is our Arabization effort to appease the Turks. These militias are locally recruited and are being trained by (or at least through) the SDF, which is YPG (Kurd) dominated. The policy of the SDF has been to form local councils to administer cities (regions) taken from IS (Mambij for example). If Raqqa is liberated and a local council is formed to administer the city and region, then it will most like be dominated by local tribal leaders contributing to the Arab militias within the SDF. These tribal leaders, per the argument above, will likely be Sunni and possibly Salafist in orientation. How will the Raqqa council interact with the Assad regime? I find it difficult to believe that they will accept a return of the regime to Raqqa. If Assad insists on the return of Raqqa to the regime, won’t this cause the local Arab leaders to turn again to Al Qaeda? It appears to me that the post-IS period is likely to be fraught with difficulties.

March 18th, 2017, 10:55 am


Joshua said:

Richard, this is very smart. Highlights the many problems with trying to establish an independent Arab rebel government in Raqqa, and presumably the entire Euphrates valley. It will mean a future war between this new entity and the Syrian Arab Army. The US will be obligated to defend the new Arab state and to face off against the Syrian government and its many allies.

I suspect, the US will encourage the YPG to stand up such an Arab proxy government in Raqqa, but will not stand by it when push comes to shove. It will be Kabuki theater to placate the Turks and Sunni Gulf allies. I don’t think it will convince either of America’s good will or honesty.

March 18th, 2017, 11:08 am


ALAN said:

American SCUMS in general are infected with (Exceptionalism)
The US military is invading our country in order to attempt regime change; need to be very clear on the objective, and the alleged “fighting ISIS” is just the cover story, because the Syrian and Russian troops have been quite effective in beating back ISIS, SO PROFESSOR, TELL THOSE SCUMS TO GET OUT OF OUR LANDS!

March 18th, 2017, 4:43 pm


Ali Alwahsh said:

Syrian army and YPG even SDF showed high level of coordination and harmony in agenda. The Euphrates valley should be handed back to the Syrian government to restore services and order, most importantly to push back IS and alNusra or what left from them.

It will be a complicated scene with multi dimensional cross “thin ice” relations as follows:

The only possible guarantor for such an arrangement is Russia.

March 18th, 2017, 4:45 pm


Jasmine said:

The US would be expected to side with Turkey and the Sunni rebels in a long and escalating war against the Shiites. I think this is a swamp waiting to suck the United States into its malodorous depths.

This is happening already and Sunnistan is on the making,and Russia is not able to fight everywhere in Syria.

And I wouldn’t trust Kurds either,they are opportunistic.

March 18th, 2017, 5:22 pm


Ali Alwahsh said:


“And I wouldn’t trust Kurds either,they are opportunistic.”

On the money!!

March 18th, 2017, 8:16 pm


Hayssam Kadah said:

Primum non nocere.

March 18th, 2017, 9:35 pm


Ghufran said:

USA policy in Syria since 1979 was built on animosity towards Iran and alliance with Israel. The Kurds are aware of that and their leaders in Iraq are makeing sure that their rhetoric and actions reflect that. The million dollar question is what to do with Turkey and that leads to the bizarre possibility that Erdogan may indeed take measures to mend relations with Syria and Iran if he sees evidence of “foul play” in the area of Kurds independence. So, by choosing the Kurds over Turkey the USA can turn the political table in Syria upside down. A Kurdish state is opposed by the regional states except Israel, it is up to Trump to decide if the price to be paid is worth it, his top advisors are not exactly experts on the subject but one or two of them may recommend taking the middle road and that is the most likely path. Assad would love to control raqqa but that is not a priority now, he has more important battles to fight but he will do his best to show that his forces are not far and can do some damage.

March 18th, 2017, 11:27 pm


Antonios Symeonakis said:

1. The author does not write anything about Israel. America’s top interests in the region is the Israel and how to support it in short long term, does not write anything why Israelis from the PM and his government to simple Israelis support an independent Kurdistan. Kurds are the physical allies of Israelis in the region, as Sunni extremists and Shites who controlled by Iran are swearing enemies of Israel.
2. The author does not write anything about the American relations with Sunni in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, how their wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and less in Libya and Syria have damaged Sunni and benefited Kurds and Shiites but Trump’s policies against Iran, and Yemen turned Shiites against Americans and the ONLY loyal friend of Americans, after Israelis are the Kurds.
3. The author does not write anything about Kurds generally in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Iraq and Syria, how the governments of those countries
united against Kurds and how American war in Iraq gave power, hope and voice to Kurds of Iraq and Syria, how lonely and full of enemy in their region they are and how much they need American support and consequently how loyal allies of Americans they could be.
4. The author does not write anything about the Kurd fighters, how good fighters they are, in really the only one who can fight and win extremists and why the war in Iraq/Syria will not finish with the fall of ISIS and why Americans will need Kurds for long time to fight extremist Turkis, Saudi Iran proxies etc.
5. The author does not write anything about the mess in the region, the anti-American sentiment in the region, including Erdogan’s anti-American propaganda and the American need military bases in Iraqi and Syria in a friendly environment as Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan. A permanent base to promote or impose USA interests in the region.
6. The author does not write anything about the Kurdish values democratic values, their respect to women rights, their secularism and similarities with western values and how much American and international community stand by Kurds and how it make easier the job of American or other western governments.

March 19th, 2017, 3:00 am


Mjabali said:

The name Rojava is an indication of the Kurds’ hegemonic racial views of the area and their ambitions.

The future holds nothing but confrontations.

March 19th, 2017, 3:22 am


ALAN said:

For Trump, it was useful to buy short-term gains through supporting the Kurds to reach ZIO-American interests in creation of new middle east.
If the statesmanship betrayed the Syrian leadership in bringing Syrian Kurds into the national ranks, any confrontation with the Kurds in Syria could strengthen their separation under the status quo.
The issue of the independence of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey and its recognition as subject in international law pits two equally valid principles in international law against each other. That is; UN member states’ right to territorial integrity vs. the right to self-determination. In its declaration of principles from 1973 the UN recognized the validity of both principles and the legality of their application as long as they were not mutually exclusive. The outcome of this dilemma is usually armed conflict with Kurds being used as pawns by opposing global and regional powers.

March 19th, 2017, 9:46 am


Bob Saro said:

The author must be living in world where there is no reality. The U.S. has little to no influence on what is going on in Syria and Northern Iraq beside arming the Kurdish groups including the ones it recognizes as terrorist organization. Russia is the ultimate player in the region with its influence on Turkey, Iran and lately GCC and it will continue to its policy of protection of the unity of Syria. The majority of kurds live in Turkey do not support PKK or YPG moreover they do want to live as Turkish citizen in Turkey. Barzani’s Northern Iraq has multibillion dollar trade with Turkey and do not give a crap about YPG or PKK and even call for immediate withdrawal of PKK forces from villages in Kurdish territory. With arming several thousand kurd would not bring any success, it would further complicate the relationship with Turkey.

March 19th, 2017, 10:57 am


Ghufran said:

Nusra and rebels are behind the recent attacks on civilian targets in Damascus and they are fighting side by side in most areas and trying to change the current map of influence, that will open the door to new attacks by the Syrian army on sections that were relatively spared from violence after rebels agreed to stop shelling Damascus and pledged to sever relations with Isis and Nusra, and regime troops agreed not to enter or bomb certain areas, this agreement may be coming to an end and a new violent chapter is about to start unless the big boys intervened and I doubt that now after it became clear that Nusra and rebels are one body and that a cease fire through negotiations may not be attainable. This war can not have two winners, one needs to emerge as a winner, however, Syrians have already lost their country and winning an internal war is merely a temporary victory that can not change the fact that large parts of Syria are destroyed and millions of Syrians are refugees or refugees to be.
يا امة ضحكت من جهلها الامم

March 19th, 2017, 11:18 am


Willy Van Damme said:

The US was never interested in some democratic Syria. The for almost six years Al Qaeda. What they and Israel wanted was the total destruction of the country, just as with Iraq and other countries. Juist set the ME on fire, divide and rule for Israel. First they helped create ISIS and its Islamic State, but because al Baghdadi attacked the Kurds in Erbil the US went against it. Only when Russia intervened the US suddenly intensified it’s strikes against ISIS. Fearing Syria and Russia and Iran would take over the whole country. So the Us has plan B, join the Kurds to split Syria just as they did in Iraq. And who gave the US the right to intervener? God?

March 23rd, 2017, 3:49 pm


Willy Van Damme said:

The US was never interested in some democratic Syria. They for almost six years Al Qaeda. What they and Israel wanted was the total destruction of the country, just as with Iraq and other countries. Juist set the ME on fire, divide and rule for Israel. First they helped create ISIS and its Islamic State, but because al Baghdadi attacked the Kurds in Erbil the US went against it. Only when Russia intervened the US suddenly intensified it’s strikes against ISIS. Fearing Syria and Russia and Iran would take over the whole country. So the Us has plan B, join the Kurds to split Syria just as they did in Iraq. And who gave the US the right to intervener? God?

March 23rd, 2017, 3:49 pm


ALAN said:

Thumbs up twice!
These American scum are still wreaking havoc on the earth.

March 23rd, 2017, 5:55 pm


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