By Rick Francona.
Note: This article is my followup to an excellent piece written by fellow CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, U.S. Army (Retired): Combat troops to Syria? Not so fast. In it, the general details very clearly the military planning process.
Here are some additional considerations that should be addressed when contemplating the introduction of American combat forces into Syria. The special operations forces now on the ground in Syria are technically in a “train, advise and assist” capacity – that is “Pentagon-speak” that there are no U.S. boots on the ground, no troops in combat.* What the report alludes to is the possible deployment of actual combat units – armor, artillery, infantry and the required support units – possibly a U.S. Army brigade combat team.
A key planning factor in developing a recommendation to be made to the Secretary of Defense and the President is the current political and military situation in Syria, in the region and how that affects the larger international landscape. Nothing in the Middle East happens in a vacuum – there are many competing interests that must be evaluated. Events in Syria are influenced by external events, just as external events are influenced by what happens in Syria. This also impacts the ever-important U.S.-Russia relationship as well.
I know this is complicated, so I will try to simplify it as best I can without sacrificing accuracy. Among a variety of assignments in the Middle East, I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. In that position, I routinely traveled the entire country, observing and reporting on the political and military situation. That travel took me to all of the areas in which there is now fighting between the all of the various factions, including the al-Raqqah area. I like to say that I have been on every paved road in Syria – not exactly true, but close.
President Trump has tasked the Department of Defense to provide options to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Given those instructions, I will focus solely on that objective, rather than trying to address the Obama Administration’s bifurcated (and in my view somewhat unrealistic) policy of defeating ISIS and also removing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.
The two objectives are virtually incompatible, and became even more so with the deployment of Russian military forces to Syria in September 2015. Any window of opportunity for the removal of al-Asad regime, either militarily or politically, closed when the first Russian fighter-bombers landed at Humaymim air base in northwestern Syria.
Most Middle East military analysts would agree that ISIS’s center of gravity in Syria – and thus the principal objective – is the group’s self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah. It is analogous with the city of Mosul in Iraq, now under attack by Iraqi military, special operations and police units. It is only a matter of time before Mosul falls to Iraqi forces.
In Iraq, there is ISIS on one side and everyone else on the other. Those allied against ISIS include the various Iraqi security forces, Iranian-supported (and many of us believe, Iranian-led) Shi’a militias, the very effective Kurdish peshmerga forces, and a variety of U.S.-led coalition troops providing differing levels of support. That coalition support includes intelligence, logistics, training and advising, direct artillery and rocket fires, and constant air strikes.
The situation in Syria could not be more different. As in Iraq, ISIS is the common enemy, however, there is not a coordinated or even coherent effort to fight it.
Note that I am not addressing the ongoing fighting in the western and southern parts of Syria, as those areas are peripheral to the main efforts against ISIS. While important, they are primarily between Syrian regime forces backed by its allies and anti-regime rebel groups, be they secular or Islamist.
The area of operations to be considered in this analysis stretches from Aleppo to the Iraqi border, roughly along the Euphrates River, a distance of almost 250 miles (see map below). Al-Raqqah sits approximately in the middle. Most planners believe that taking al-Raqqah is the key to defeating ISIS in Syria.
In the coming battle for al-Raqqah, the major combatant groups in the fight against ISIS are:
* Syrian government and its allies. The Syrian armed forces are supported by the Russian armed forces, primarily through airpower, but also via missile strikes and rocket/field artillery. Additional ground forces are provided by the Iranian Army and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and a group of Afghan Shi’a fighters. These allies have effectively doubled the size of what remains of the Syrian Army. The Syrian military has been severely crippled by losses and defections to the point that without this external assistance, it would cease to be a viable force.
* Major elements of the Free Syrian Army, supported in this operation – dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield – by the Turkish military. One might question Turkey’s motives for participating in the fighting. Although Ankara’s stated reason is to fight ISIS – and they are doing that – many believe it is to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not create some form of autonomous region in northern Syria as they have in Iraq, or worst case, attempt to merge the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas into one political entity.
* U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is made up of about two thirds Kurdish fighters from a group known as the People’s Protection Units, more commonly known by the Kurdish initials YPG. Turkey is concerned about American support for the YPG, since they regard the Kurdish militia as nothing more that an extension of the separatist Kurdish Workers’ Party (more commonly known by its Kurdish initials, PKK). The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and NATO.
The other third of the SDF is made up of Syrian Arabs who are committed to combating ISIS in return for American support – money, weapons and training. American special operations forces have been embedded with the SDF to “advise and assist” in the fight against ISIS, which includes on-the-ground control of American airstrikes.
(For more detail on the political-military landscape in Syria, see my earlier article, The coming assault on al-Raqqah – a political minefield.)
The current military situation on the ground in this area is also a key planning factor. There are basically two concurrent operations underway. The first is concentrated around the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. Al-Bab is located about 20 road miles northeast of the city of Aleppo, and – here is the key number – about 100 road miles northwest of al-Raqqah.
Black=ISIS / Red=Syrian regime / Green=FSA / Orange=SDF
The fighting around al-Bab clearly illustrates the complicated nature of the political-military situation in Syria. ISIS still controls most of the city, which is under attack from both the Turkish-backed FSA as well as Russian/Iranian/Hizballah-backed Syrian regime forces. American-backed SDF forces are not far away.
All three of the groups are fighting not only ISIS, but each other. The Russians and Turks have tried to keep their respective clients focused on combating ISIS, with only limited success.
The fighting around al-Bab has been ongoing for months. Despite Russian, Syrian and Turkish air and ground support, ISIS has fought a deliberate and steady defense, basically slowing the advance of the opposing forces into ISIS-held territory. This keeps the front line of the Turkish-backed FSA about 85 miles (over 100 road miles) from al-Raqqah. If the past fighting is any indication, it will take months for the FSA or Syrian regime to be in a position to mount an attack on al-Raqqah.
Contrast the positions of the regime and FSA with that of the American-backed SDF near al-Raqqah. According to the latest situation map (below), SDF forces have approached the northeastern suburbs of the city itself. This culminates a three-month operation to isolate al-Raqqah from the west, north and now east.
The Euphrates River presents a natural southern obstacle for ISIS in the city. The coalition has destroyed the two bridges over the Euphrates, complicating movement between the northern and southern sections of the city.
Here is where politics on the international level and the military situation on the ground in Syria converge. Turkey – a key NATO ally – insists that its forces be in the vanguard of the effort to liberate al-Raqqah. They believe that the Syrian Arab FSA troops, supported by Turkish Army artillery, armor and special forces, as well as Turkish Air Force air strikes, should mount the assault on the city, as opposed to the majority Syrian Kurdish SDF.
The Turks’ rationale is that to the residents of al-Raqqah, the SDF will be regarded as a Kurdish force despite the SDF name and only minor Arab participation. In essence, according to the Turks, the people will be trading one oppressor for another, saying that “one terrorist organization can not be used to fight another.” This makes sense if you buy into the Turkish assertion that the YPG, the Kurdish militia participating in the SDF, is a terrorist organization. Personally, I don’t.
Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaks out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, even a Kurdish-dominant liberating force, hoping that after the city is liberated from ISIS life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.
That said, the Turks have presented their arguments to the United States at the highest levels. In response, the nascent Trump Administration has put a hold on additional armor and heavy weapons to the SDF, pending a review of U.S. policy in Syria.
Knowing that the United States believes time is of the essence in moving on al-Raqaah (based on intelligence that ISIS cells in the city are planning attacks on the West), the Turks have advanced two proposals for an accelerated Turkish-backed FSA assault on the city. The nearest FSA units are still almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah and in a tough fight around al-Bab.
The Turks’ preferred plan of action, which I will call “Plan A,” proposes the Turkish and American special operations forces lead an FSA force via a corridor through Kurdish-held territory from the border town of Tal Abiyad south to al-Raqqah (indicated in white on the above map), a distance of about 60 miles. Turkey would need American help to persuade the Kurds to allow the Turks to enter this area – not a small feat while Turkish forces near al-Bab are fighting SDF/YPG units.
The second option, or what I am calling Plan B, is to continue the fight from al-Bab, moving east to the Euphrates and along the south bank of the river to al-Raqqah, a distance of over 100 road miles (indicated in blue on the map). That is essentially the status quo, but would require American assurances that the SDF will not mount a unilateral assault on al-Raqqah while the Turkish-backed FSA fights its way to the city. This will take months.
In my assessment, Plan B is a nonstarter. It will take too long – it will prolong the suffering of the people of al-Raqqah and if the intelligence on ISIS attack planning is correct, possibly facilitate a lethal ISIS operation against a Western target. As for Plan A, I doubt the Kurds will be amenable to allowing the Turks to traverse their territory with armor and artillery for fear that they will never leave, regardless of any American guarantee to the contrary.
The next step is for the Trump Administration to determine what our overall policy in Syria is to be, how much stake we place in maintaining a cooperative relationship with NATO ally Turkey, while adhering to the commitment to defeat ISIS.
If asked, I would advise the President to provide whatever support – armor, artillery, airstrikes, intelligence, etc. – the Department of Defense deems necessary to the SDF, understanding the risks of having what will be perceived as a Kurdish force liberate a Syrian Arab city. We cannot wait for the Turks and the FSA.
If the Defense planners determine that the SDF is incapable of taking al-Raqqah, even with increased U.S. support, then and only then should they recommend the insertion of American combat units into this political minefield. Or as General Hertling and I both say, not so fast.