From Denmark to Raqqa: Anti-ISIS operations in Syria at crossroads

The announcement comes alongside several other announcements. US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations Thursday and discussed Syria.

A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter sits as medics treat his comrades injured by sniper fired by Islamic State militants in a field hospital in Raqqa, Syria, June 28, 2017. (photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter sits as medics treat his comrades injured by sniper fired by Islamic State militants in a field hospital in Raqqa, Syria, June 28, 2017.
The US welcomed Denmark’s decision on Friday to deploy military personnel to Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
This is an important symbolic achievement for the coalition that is fighting ISIS after more than six months trying to get Western countries to commit forces to the increasingly complex challenges in eastern Syria, where US soldiers are working closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat ISIS remnants.
The announcement comes alongside several other statements. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations Thursday and discussing Syria, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford said ISIS has a significant presence in Iraq and Syria, but it has been degraded and is now carrying out insurgent-style operations. Around 50-60,000 local security forces are needed to deal with this residual ISIS presence and the coalition was about “50% of the way there,” he said.
The US is also working closely with Turkey on a security mechanism that is supposed to appeal to Ankara’s security concerns along its southeastern border.
Over the last year Ankara has threatened to launch a military operation targeting areas held by the SDF, with Turkish media and politicians spreading inflammatory stories about the SDF being a threat to Turkey and linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
A post from the US European Command noted that on Thursday US Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters conducted a joint aerial patrol of the security mechanism zone over northeast Syria in conjunction with Turkish military helicopters.
“The security mechanism is intended to address Turkish security concerns, maintain security in northeast Syria so ISIS cannot reemerge, and allow the Coalition to remain focused on achieving the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
At the same time the global coalition to defeat ISIS has put out a new video asserting that Raqqa, the ISIS capital before it was liberated in 2017, is overcoming its challenges.
The video included local voices from the city. One of the major challenges in eastern Syria has been attracting investment, especially after the uncertainty caused in December 2018 when the US said it might pull out of the area. The US has sought investment from the Gulf, but so far efforts to reconstruct and invest in agriculture and clear land mines left behind by ISIS are going slowly.
Each one of the challenges in eastern Syria would be enough by itself. Trying to defeat the ISIS remnants and train the SDF is one mission. At the same time, there is the distraction caused by Turkey’s threats, which are designed by Ankara to heat up the crises and force the US to do something.
For instance, the recent threats caused the creation of the security mechanism and pressure on the SDF to remove defensive fortifications it had built along the border. Many within the SDF recall that last January Turkey invade Afrin, a mostly Kurdish area, claiming that it was held by the PKK and was a threat. More than 150,000 Kurds fled the area, which today is home to extremists.
The idea that Turkey would like to do another Afrin-style operation in eastern Syria is a  real fear for those on the ground. When Ankara speaks of returning eastern Syria to its “true owners,” this is cause for concern among locals. In recent days Ankara indicated it would like to repatriate 1,000,000 Syrian refugees, mostly Arabs who are not from eastern Syria but from Aleppo and other areas, to areas controlled by the SDF. This is calculated by Ankara to encourage populism among the refugees and Syrian rebel groups Turkey works with and put them against the SDF, distracting them from the Syrian regime offensive in Idlib.
Meanwhile the challenge of the detainees across eastern Syria is another large challenge. More than 10,000 ISIS fighters are held in eastern Syria, 2,000 of them foreigners. Hundreds of the most hard core come from Europe and were involved in ISIS’ genocide of minorities.
But there is no mechanism to prosecute them in eastern Syria. So they sit in camps and plot the return of ISIS. At Al-Hol camp, there are more than 70,000 mostly women and children, half of them under age 18. Of those, around 45,000 are thought to be ISIS supporters, including the most extreme women who traveled to support ISIS and were part of the ISIS internal religious enforcers or hisbah.
Recent reports in The Washington Post and a journal devoted to US Homeland Security have described how the women in the camp are recreating ISIS on the ground from within the fences of the camp. Allegations include claims the women have recreated the hisbah and that they have burned people alive and use homemade weapons such as knives to harass women and children.
The picture painted of the camp is one in which tens of thousands are allowed to do whatever they want because of a lack of monitoring. With insufficient security forces, they are recreating a kind of ISIS ‘caliphate’ within the sprawling camp, waiting for the right moment when instability enables them to attack.
Dunford touched on the challenges of the camp and Turkey in his discussion. He said that the US is working with Turkey daily to address its concerns. The security coordination center is only around 10 days old but it is making progress. As for the camp and detainees, the Department of Defense seems to argue that the US State Department is responsible for interfacing with this emerging threat.
The bifurcation here indicates US sees defeating ISIS and dealing with Turkey as a defense department mission, but its unclear where the other stabilization efforts conducted by US forces and partners are bifurcated. Obviously monitoring networks that link the detainees to the insurgency are important and can’t be compartmentalized.
Towards that end, the US is training the SDF and other layers of forces, including local forces that may serve along the border with Turkey to reduce Ankara’s concerns. The numbers of forces needed has always been unclear because last December the US said that it needed to train an additional 35,000 forces and had completed about 20% of that. In January 2018, the numbers included a 30,000-strong “border force.” By August 2018, the SDF had around 50,000 forces working to clear ISIS. The Department of Defense Lead Inspector General report for the last quarter said the overall goal was 110,000, including 30,000 SDF and 35,000 internal security forces.
The overall problem in the fall of 2018 was addressing the detainee threats, Turkey’s continuing assertions that it will launch an operation and the ISIS sleeper cells. This three-pronged policy has now been in place for six months since the last ISIS pocket surrendered, but lingering questions about how long the US will remain cloud what might come next.