Washington’s crises in eastern Syria as Turkey shells Kurds

U.S. faces long list of tensions in eastern Syria among Kurdish and Turkish allies, Arabs in Raqqa and remnants of ISIS

A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces stands amidst the ruins of buildings near the Clock Square in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/ERIK DE CASTRO)
A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces stands amidst the ruins of buildings near the Clock Square in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ERIK DE CASTRO)
The US is facing crises in eastern Syria after a series of setbacks.
On Friday, a tribal leader from Raqqa was gunned down. Turkey also continued its shelling and sniper fire across the border into northern Syria, targeting positions of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and wounding two journalists, according to local reports. On the Euphrates River, the Islamic State has regained ground and US partners fighting ISIS are asking the US to stop the Turkish shelling.
A year after ISIS was driven from its Syrian capital of Raqqa these are signs that all is not well.
“With regret and sadness we received news of Sheikh Bashir Faisal Al-Huwaidi’s death in Raqqa,” the US anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk said on November 3. According to Kurdistan 24 writer Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, ISIS had claimed responsibility for the attack. The tribal sheikh, one of the most important in the Raqqa region, was shot with a silencer, illustrating that this was a planned hit.
The attack was celebrated by pro-Assad accounts on social media. This is odd considering that the Assad regime is ostensibly fighting ISIS, but the reality is that the tribal leader was an enemy of the regime and of ISIS. He had been friendly with Syrian rebels before the ISIS takeover in 2013. At his funeral, video showed tribesmen shouting against the YPG, who are a component of the Syrian Democratic Forces and partners of the US-led Coalition against ISIS. The competition for who will run Raqqa may only be just beginning. Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry excoriated the US for turning Raqqa into a home of “anarchy, famine and devastation” that would breed terrorism. Two days later, terror came to Raqqa and the Sheikh was murdered.
On Saturday, US envoy William Roebuck, an advisor to McGurk who deals with Syria policy from the US State Department and helps coordinate stabilization efforts in Syria, found himself at a hospital in Manbij. Roebuck was there to visit a journalist, who was shot covering the bombardment of northern Syria by Turkish forces. The journalist along with another were shot by snipers. They said they were deliberately targeted from the Turkish side.
The shelling by Turkey started last week and targeted areas held by the YPG in Syria. Turkey has said it wants to launch an operation in Syria to clear it of “YPG/PKK terrorists.” Turkish media has highlighted Arab refugees who have left Tel Abyad, near Kobani in eastern Syria, and “are now expecting Turkey’s support to clear their district of terrorists.” This district is an area of the YPG, who was partnered with the US Coalition fighting ISIS, and had cleared the area of ISIS in 2015. The YPG later became part of the SDF, which is the main partner of the US in Syria today. But for Ankara the name changes don’t matter, since they view the YPG as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – in other words, as a terrorist group. This has caused tensions with the US and Turkey.
In January, Turkey launched an attack on Afrin in northern Syria, which had been held by the YPG. Turkey also wants to play a role in Manbij, another area in northern Syria that the SDF helped liberate from ISIS in 2016. Over the weekend, the first US-Turkish joint military patrols around Manbij began, with the SDF wondering what may come next.
The Turkish threats against northern Syria have caused major tensions with the SDF, who has pressured the US to call off Turkey’s shelling. The SDF has been fighting a tough offensive against the last ISIS stronghold in Hajin in southern Syria in the Euphrates valley, having suffered dozens of casualties at the end of October and sent special units to bolster the battle. However, the Turkish shelling caused the SDF to stop the offensive. The SDF understands that it cannot be asked to fight ISIS, while being shelled by a US NATO ally. It wants the US to send Turkey a message, but Turkey wants the US to pick a side. The foreign ministry in Ankara has called on Washington to “terminate the engagement” with the YPG.
Washington now finds itself in its worst crisis in Syria since Raqqa was retaken last year. During the war on ISIS, the US could pour resources into the war effort. But now it has to deal with winning the peace – a process it calls “stabilization.” This went well for six months, but then the US began to signal it would stay in eastern Syria until Iran leaves.
The operation to defeat ISIS in its last Euphrates Valley stronghold has slowed to a snail’s pace. But the slow pace still means casualties among US partners. The Kurdish partners wonder whether the US has their interests at heart, or are simply playing for time; will they eventually hand over eastern Syria to the Syrian regime or Turkey? The US doesn’t seem to know what its final plan is, but has asked Saudi Arabia to help fund reconstruction efforts in Syria. Riyadh sent $100 million in October to help rebuild eastern Syria. This came as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are in the midst of their own crises over the killing of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate.
For the US, the situation is now on a tightrope. Any wrong move on the northern border, Manbij, Raqqa or on the Euphrates could lead to a new conflict, even before the ISIS conflict is over. Meanwhile, US sanctions against Iran are kicking in on November 5. The US is heading to midterm elections when it can least afford to be distracted in foreign policy issues. With Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran watching, Washington cannot hardly afford to misstep.