While the battle to liberate Mosul wages on, another battle against the Islamic State begins. Last Saturday, an operation named “Euphrates Anger” was announced to defeat the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa in Syria. The operation is being conducted by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) heavily backed by the United States.
Who are the SDF?
The SDF are a coalition of Syrian groups formed with help from the United States. The SDF includes fighters from a variety of groups including Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Syriac Christian fighters, among others. However, the SDF is largely dominated by Kurds. The Popular Defense Units, known better by its Kurdish acronym YPG, represents the largest group within the SDF.
The YPG is largely considered to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as the PKK. This adds an element of tension to the battle for Raqqa as the PKK are considered a terrorist group by many nations, including the United States and Turkey. However, the United States has been able to plausibly maintain that the YPG is a separate group from the PKK, allowing support for the group to continue.
There are estimated to be approximately 30,000 troops from the SDF participating in the battle for Raqqa. The United States will be providing air support for the operation.
Why is Raqqa Important?
Raqqa is a city in Syria that the Islamic State has proclaimed the de facto capital of their caliphate. Besides holding symbolic significance, Raqqa also serves as an example of one of the few remaining cities governed under the Islamic State. Further, Raqqa is an important city for transporting people and supplies as it sits on the Euphrates river.
What is Turkey’s Role?
Turkey has demonstrated interest in Raqqa for several reasons. Geographically speaking, Raqqa is approximately 100 kilometers or 62 miles from the Turkish border, prompting Turkish security concerns. Turkey also fears Kurdish nationalism in Syria as Syrian-Kurdish forces gain territory in their semi-autonomous northern region of Rojava. Erdogan views the YPG as an extension of the PKK and therefore as an enemy. Turkey has been fighting with the PKK domestically since the 1980’s.
The United States has been attempting to appease both Turkey and the SDF in the operation to take Raqqa. Last month,Turkish aircraft bombed YPG positions in northern Syria, further complicating the situation. Additionally, the YPG specifically requested that Turkey stay out of the battle for Raqqa.
What Comes Next?
Raqqa’s population is composed primarily of Arabs. This could potentially cause issues in the future, as the SDF doesn’t intend to just defeat the Islamic State in Raqqa, but to also govern the city. Given the fact that the SDF is largely composed of Kurdish fighters, ethnic differences have the potential for conflict. Local support will be crucial for the operation to be a success.
Syrian-Kurdish officials congratulated President-elect Donald Trump on his victory. They requested American support for their goals of a federal system of government in Syria. Further, they asked America to stop supporting Turkish-backed groups in Syria that are fighting with the YPG.
It is unclear exactly what President-elect Donald Trump’s policy will be towards Syria, however he has suggested in the past that he may support President Bashar al-Assad in order to achieve his goals.
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