At first, no one wanted to do anything significant against ISIS in Syria, but now everyone wants a piece of the action. That may create more problems than it solves, however. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told NBC News that an assault on the terror army’s “capital” of Raqqa to push ISIS out for good will only be weeks away. Now Turkey’s prime minister claims that his army will take out Raqqa — just as soon as they take out some of the troops the US planned to use in its own operation:
Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria will target the town of Manbij, recently liberated from Islamic State by Kurdish-led forces, and the jihadists’ stronghold of Raqqa, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday. …
Turkey has been angered at Washington’s support for the Kurdish YPG militia in its battle against Islamic State in Syria, with Ankara regarding it as a hostile force with deep ties to Kurdish militants fighting in southeast Turkey.
A top U.S. military commander said on Wednesday YPG fighters will be included in the force to isolate Raqqa. Arab forces, and not Kurdish ones, are expected to be the ones to take the city itself, U.S. officials say.
Welcome to the world of post-ISIS power politics — assuming we ever get there. It’s like the old Tom Lehrer song, “National Brotherhood Week”: The Turks hate the Kurds, the Sunnis hate the Shi’ites, the Syrians hate the Turks, Kurds, and the Sunnis, and no one cares about the Assyrians who lost the most in the rise of ISIS. Once ISIS has been defeated, the divisions in the coalition will emerge almost immediately and leave the region susceptible to another extremist terror group … again assuming it holds together long enough to achieve its aims.
Erdogan and the Turks suspect that the US will use its anti-ISIS strategy to promote the Kurdish cause, and perhaps with good reason. The US seemed to be conspicuously not unhappy about the attempted coup against Erdogan a few months ago, and the Kurds have been the most effective force in the field against ISIS. US strategy has consistently been to promote Iraqi unity, but with the Shi’ites inevitably coming under the influence of Iran and our alliances with Sunni tribal leaders destroyed by our 2011 abandonment of them, the Kurds are all we have left.
Therefore, it’s not too surprising that Erdogan is taking this particular moment to get ahead of the US in this fight. He tried to get his own force of 3,000 Iraqi ex-pats to take part in the liberation of Mosul, but the US rebuffed him, understanding clearly that Erdogan’s main aim was to keep the Kurds from claiming the city. The US compromised by pledging that only the regular Iraqi Army would go into the city proper, but that may not last if the regulars can’t hold their ground in urban combat on this scale. Erdogan wants to take no chances with Raqqa and the potential spread of Kurdish control adjacent to his borders.
That’s why Erdogan is also taking this particular moment to attack the YPG — our allies — and take control of towns that they have liberated. He’s daring the US to either do something about it or to make a deal over Raqqa. The problem for the US is that we don’t control political outcomes on the ground any longer — that influence stopped in 2011, and without reconstituting an occupation force, it’s not coming back. That leaves us with the new normal of ancient hostilities re-emerging without any effective nation-state in the region to keep them under control. Perhaps ISIS might get destroyed over the next few months, or perhaps not. But the fighting won’t stop for a very long time regardless, and the big losers will almost certainly be the Assyrian Christians and Yazidis whose homeland will remain a battleground.