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US Is Backing the Syrian Kurdish Offensive to Cut ISIS' Link to Turkey

Turkey counts less today in Washington than it did yesterday

The Kurdish-dominated SDF is making great progress against ISIS. Having expanded their one bridgehead over the Euphrates and carved out another one, they've now went on to link up the two salients. 

Their stated goal of the offensive of taking the mixed Arab-Kurdish city of Manbij (prewar population of 100,000) now looks like eminently attainable one.

<figcaption>If Ankara won't close the Turkey border to ISIS these guys will</figcaption>
If Ankara won't close the Turkey border to ISIS these guys will

Their success so far has been the result of an excellent battle plan. Firstly, for weeks the SDF was giving the impression its next target was Raqqa which likely led ISIS to concentrate there.

Secondly, the SDF unexpectedly crossed the Euphrates at a second site taking advantage of floating pontoons, and a damaged but still useable bridge. Not only did this throw ISIS off balance but it pinned its forces between the two bridgeheads and left them with both of its flanks exposed.

Thirdly, US airplanes struck ISIS positions in support of the offensive and have destroyed a few minor bridges across Euphrates' tributaries to frustrate ISIS' ability to quickly bring in reinforcements.



One interpretation of current battle lines
One interpretation of current battle lines


A more conservative estimate
A more conservative estimate

US backing of the offensive may seem strange to some given that it goes against Turkish wishes and against what Americans have been saying so far. It shouldn't be. As I wrote before Pentagon at least has always been serious about rolling back ISIS.

Basically what has happened was that after Russians intervened in Syria US came to gradually accept that its goal of toppling Assad was now unattainable. Correspondingly it came to gradually prioritize its (winnable) war against ISIS over its (unwinnable) war against Assad. 

The State Department, the CIA and numerous Washington think-tanks surely still want US-backing to center on Syrian rebels whose priority is fighting Assad, and for Kurds to be marginalized for the sake of Erdgodan who is a key anti-Assad ally, however, their wishes don't count with the Oval Office as much as they used to.

On the other hand the US is still not backing the Kurds of Afrin enclave whose main enemy are the supposely 'moderate' rebels, and is doing nothing to lift a finger to help the Kurds of Aleppo's Sheik Mansoor district who are in a tactical alliance with the Syrian government forces and besieged by the rebels. -- US policy is capable of shifting but only very slowly and US backing of SDF is far from absolute.

Turkish interests and wishes remain a high priority for the US. Short of stopping the SDF offensive it is doing everything, and saying everything to keep the fallout with Ankara to a minimum. Thus US has said it's actually Arab SDF units which are leading this offensive, with YPG merely "helping", and has claimed that after offensive ends YPG will retreat back across the Euphrates and leave Arabs to garrison the newly-captured areas alone. Americans have also said that Turkey backs the new offensive, which the Turks promptly denied.

The rest of what Americans are saying is equally unbelievable. The Kurdish YPG forms at least three quarter of SDF battle strength. So far it has been its Arab units who have served as auxiliaries for the Kurds rather than the other way around, and this is likely true for the current push on Manbij as well.

The idea that once they bleed for it YPG fighters will simply evacuate and hand over the areas take over is unlikely for three reasons. A.) Kurds want these areas as a link to the majority-Kurdish Afrin enclave. B.) Kurds have already proclaimed they see the area as a 'canton' in the Kudish-dominated Rojava autonomous region of Syria (proclaimed this March) and C.) the area is not wholly Arab but includes a number of Kurdish populated villages, and Manbij itself has a significant Kurdish minority. 

Of course Kurds don't need to go out of their way to antagonize Turkey. They can garrison the area along the Arab component of the SDF but instead of waving YPG flags and wearing YPG insignia satisfy themselves with displaying SDF symbols alone. Thus US can pretend that Kurdish fighters are largely absent, while Kurds remain in overall control on the ground.

Meanwhile the US special forces embedded with the Kurds (even as they've been ordered by the Pentagon to remove Kurdish patches they're so fond of) are serving an extraordinarily useful role for the YPG -- because of American troops mixed with the Kurds it's out of the question for Turks to unleash their artillery against YPG as they had done before.

In any case the takeaway, aside from the impressive gains of the offensive so far should be that Turkey counts less in Washington today than it did yesterday. -- Maybe Obama's professed disdain for Erdogan is finally having an influence on actual policy.

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