Analysis: America takes the plunge in Syria

US ups its troops in an increasingly complex battlefield and risks straining relations with Turkey.

SYRIAN REBELS and civilians wait near damaged buildings to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SYRIAN REBELS and civilians wait near damaged buildings to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, US Marines were sent to Syria to aid in the battle to oust Islamic State from its capital in Raqqa. This brings the total of US troops there to almost 1,000, according to multiple reports.
US troops deploy near Syria"s Manbij as Assad calls them "invaders" (credit: REUTERS)
As the Marines were arriving, the US 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger) carried out a very visible maneuver, driving around the outskirts of a town called Manbij, flying the Stars and Stripes in a show of force to warn off Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies. The Turks had threatened to attack Manbij, which is being held by US allies known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The US decision to up its commitment to Syria comes after six years of bloody war, which is one reason it was not met as a major surprise. The Russians intervened in Syria in 2015 to support the regime and Turkey sent troops into the country in 2016 to support Syrian rebels. The American role is not unique in this respect; it is backing its mostly Kurdish allies in the east.
The American moves in Syria represent a greater internationalization of the conflict that began in 2011 as a revolution by Syrians against decades of dictatorship by the Assad family. The Pentagon’s involvement in the country is aimed at destroying Islamic State, first from the air, then with special forces and small arms, and now with Marines and Rangers. Along the way the Americans have learned that supporting their main allies in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is a complicated venture.
The SDF is an outgrowth of the successful Kurdish war against ISIS. The Kurdish armed forces in Syria, called the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are viewed as terrorists by Turkey which asserts they are connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The SDF was established as a way to create some space between the YPG and Arab units it recruited as it conquered territory from ISIS. The SDF also allowed the YPG to rebrand itself beyond its Kurdish cantons, as a diverse Syrian entity. Between May and August 2016 the SDF conquered a swath of area across the Euphrates and took the town of Manbij.
The SDF advance was checked by the Turkish- backed intervention that began in August, dubbed Euphrates Shield. Ostensibly the Turks were intervening to clear ISIS from their border and take the town of al-Bab, but statements often targeted the SDF and YPG as equal adversaries. On March 2, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “after the liberation of al-Bab from Daesh [ISIS] terrorists, Turkey’s new target in Syria is Manbij. Manbij is a city which belongs to Arabs, and the SDF must also not be in Raqqa.” Erdogan, however, faces pressures at home over a referendum and a new UN report highlighting alleged abuses in the war against the PKK.
US Army Lt.-Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (established by the US-led coalition to fight ISIS), told reporters that he was concerned about the convergence of Turkish, Russian, Syrian regime and ISIS forces in the areas near Manbij. “Essentially three armies and an enemy force have all converged within the same grid.”
This creates two problems for the Americans. If Turkey attacks America’s SDF allies in Manbij, then the SDF will divert resources from the Raqqa offensive to fight Turkey and its Arab allies. At the same time the SDF is closing in on Raqqa more rapidly then expected, coming within 20 kilometers of the city center on Thursday. The SDF is also on the verge of breaking a threeyear siege of Deir ez-Zor, a city downstream on the Euphrates from Raqqa. The Syrian regime has held Deir ez-Zor against ISIS since 2014.
The US wants Raqqa captured, and its dispatch of the Marines to man M777 155mm artillery that will zero in on the ISIS fighters and pummel them, as it did in the Mosul offensive in Iraq, is key to the strategy. What was not foreseen as key to the effort was to send US Rangers to drive around Manbij in armored vehicles, just to show the flag and make the Turks and their allies think twice about any moves on the city.
Here the US has embarked on a unique strategy and in a sense “bought in” to the Syria war. Before the flag-flying its presence was clouded in secrecy, ambiguous and often imprecise, praising the SDF while meeting with the Turks and never giving clear signals as to which force would actually take Raqqa. The Turks have kept urging for an Arab Turkish-allied force to help take Raqqa. There seems no chance of that now; the Turks are too far away and their statements against the SDF do not warrant any alliance with them.
Instead what has happened is that the SDF has grown closer to the US, the Syrian regime and Russia, and the US finds itself in an awkward position where it may help retake Raqqa, only to see the city eventually handed over to the Syrian government of Bashar Assad. That would mark a sea change since two years ago, when the US was still insisting Assad leave power and the CIA was reportedly backing Syrian rebels in Jordan and Turkey.
Now it appears more US troops will be on the way and the model for how Mosul was taken – embedding US special forces at the front – will be used to clear out Raqqa. The question that US policy- makers have to ask, after all this investment in eastern Syria, including in airfields and allying closely with the Kurds, is what happens when ISIS is defeated. On that question the Pentagon has remained mum, as has the US administration.