ISIS in Syria: US-led coalition keeps strong partnership with SDF

US-led coalition supports SDF through various measures besides military support

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province liberation from ISIS, in Raqqa, Syria Ocotber 27, 2018 (photo credit: ABOUD HAMAM / REUTERS)
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province liberation from ISIS, in Raqqa, Syria Ocotber 27, 2018
(photo credit: ABOUD HAMAM / REUTERS)
The US-led Coalition and its Operation Inherent Resolve that is designed to defeat ISIS has continued a close partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria, despite the recent crisis. A discussion with the spokesman for the coalition, Col. Myles Caggins III, reveals how the continued campaign in eastern Syria seeks to balance the control of critical infrastructure while dealing with a complex environment bordered by other countries.
Caggins was recently in Syria where he saw first hand the results of shifting policy where the US withdrew from border areas in northeast Syria and closed several bases between Tabqa, Raqqa, Manbij and Kobani. These included an airstrip at Sarrin and a base near a cement factory. This is “re-balancing” of forces into other areas of eastern Syria where the coalition continues to partner closely with the SDF in Deir Ezzor and Hasakah provinces. “The partnership never broke or was severed,” Caggins said.
This is important because the US decision on October 6 to withdraw from parts of Syria left many questions about what the coalition's role would eventually be. The coalition is made up of 81 partners, but most of them were not involved in eastern Syria. French and UK special forces were once involved, but their role today is unclear.
That leaves the US and hundreds of personnel as a key to the coalition’s defeat of ISIS. While Iraqi military intelligence warned this week that ISIS wants to begin a resurgence, in Syria the key is to suppress ISIS sleeper cells.
However, a Turkish operation launched on October 9 and a subsequent ceasefire Turkey and Russia agreed on October 22 have caused some changes in eastern Syria. Not only did many people flee but also hundreds of SDF members were reported killed. While the SDF focused on that crisis, operations against ISIS slowed. “But the presence and partnership remained and through back-end Intel and logistics we have been developing understanding of ISIS activities and we will see in weeks ahead that we will do more partnered activities in Deir Ezzor,” said Caggins. “We are protecting critical infrastructure that includes key bridges or electrical or water, as well as oil. All of that used to be under control of ISIS. We continue to want to deny ISIS any access to revenue-generating sources.”
Critical infrastructure is the term that encompasses what was reported as “securing the oil.” It’s much more than just oil. It also means enabling the SDF to continue running detention facilities where some 10,000 ISIS members are held. The US wants to keep “relentless pressure” on ISIS through the partnership with the SDF and with Iraqi Security Forces across the border. This is a big area, almost the size of Belgium and larger than Lebanon. It includes almost 300 km. of border areas with Iraq.
Keeping ISIS from crossing back and forth is key. ISIS is now confined to desert hideouts, and moves in small groups, the colonel said. “Despite wanting to resurge, they are unable to do that due to relentless pressure applied by the SDF and Iraqi security forces. We have disrupted their finance, logistics and propaganda and communications. The small raids you don’t hear about upend operations and goals of ISIS to launch sophisticated attacks, to get control of neighborhoods and villages,” Caggins said.
Keeping the SDF in the fight is important and it means ensuring that the SDF has the resources, especially financially, to do its missions. The US supports the SDF through congressionally approved stipends. Some of that goes to pay prison guards at the detention facilities. The facilities themselves are more makeshift and not designed for the long term usually. “The SDF is managing this important mission by cobbling together whatever resources they can spare.” The oil revenues goes to the SDF to finance operations, governance and securing these facilities.
The US and coalition is still training the SDF. But the SDF had to re-align forces during the Turkish operation. The coalition has the opportunity to continue some training. It is also training a group at Tanf, called the Maghawir al-Thawra, made up of Syrian rebel anti-ISIS fighters. Tanf is an isolated desert post held by the US in eastern Syria near the Jordanian border.
Another challenge for the US in Syria is that the ongoing clashes near the town of Tel Tamr between Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and elements of the Syrian regime’s army. The Russians are also present on the M4 highway nearby. The US has protocols called “de-confliction” that enable American soldiers to avoid clash with these other forces. The idea is to monitor what is going on in areas where all these forces are in close proximity. But the US withdrawal from some areas near the border has lessened that tension.
The US is also not involved in the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement and the coalition is not involved in Turkey’s “safe zone” that it took over near the border since October. Coalition forces now appears to only travel through those areas for logistical reasons relating to defeating ISIS. “We put forth our principles and enduring philosophy that military forces should avoid at all possible civilian casualties,” said Caggins.
One issue the SDF has expressed concern about is being targeted by drones from Turkey. Since Turkey has accused the YPG of being “terrorists” and linked to the SDF, there are concerns expressed online that SDF leaders could be targeted. But the SDF in other areas, outside the areas near Tel Tamr where there clashes, is partnered closely with the coalition. There are joint patrols with the Americans. “We’ve had discussions with Coalition and the SDF and about what our expectations are and they are clear and the understanding is we partner in Hasakah and Deir Ezzor [provinces].”
Caggins said that on a military to military level, the relationship with the SDF has not changed. The US forces and SDF forces share bases and territory. “We live on the same bases and train, socialize and partner with the SDF, and they protected us on their bases and they do security,” he said. In recent weeks the US forces have been bolstered with Bradley Fighting Vehicles. There are also mechanized infantry and Apache helicopters. “Bringing this type of capability gives maneuver and survivability and firepower and we still have a good presence of special operations to concentrate on advise and train partnered forces and conduct raids from time to time against specific targets.”
In the Deir Ezzor area near the Euphrates River, there are numerous Arab tribes and the area is more Arabic-speaking than Kurdish. Caggins stressed that the SDF is a multi-ethnic force that has different religions and also gender integration with women fighters. “Many of our on-the-ground partners and foot soldiers in Deir Ezzor are Arab,” he noted. The SDF also has civilian sections that work with local governance. “We recognize the population is a key part so that ISIS doesn’t have an effective insurgency.”
The overall picture is that the October crisis has led to a November gelling and return to the mission. This bifurcates the issues along the border with Turkey and where the SDF deals with the Syrian regime or Russia in northern Syria, with areas the US is working closely such as near Hasakah and Deir Ezzor. Securing the oil and other infrastructure enabled the SDF to continue to maintain control over large swaths of territory and to keep ISIS detainees controlled. Whereas in October there were concerns about ISIS resurgence and the detainees escaping, it now appears that fear has been reduced.