U.S. and allied forces say that they could attack the Syrian city of Raqqa—the capital of the ISIS terrorist group’s self-proclaimed caliphate—within weeks, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
Just weeks ago, Iraqi forces with the support of some 5,000 U.S. troops launched a major offensive against Mosul, which is considered to be the terror group’s primary financial and operations hub in Iraq.
In Raqqa, the United States will rely on Kurdish forces to carry out the main offensive.
But the push into deeper Syrian territory could exacerbate the complex tensions among the major players in the conflict, mainly the Kurds and the Turkish forces.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been the most unified force for the United States in Syria. But any operation with YPG to take on ISIS in Raqqa could strain relations with Turkey.
“If the Kurdish YPG take the lead and play a serious role in the battle for Raqqa, that will make Turkey very nervous and it would be hard to see Turkey fully cooperate within the coalition,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The Kurdish YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the sister organization of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States.
Further gains in Syria by the YPG could inspire the Kurds to push for autonomy within Syria, which is unacceptable for Turkey, according to Gartenstein-Ross.
“Turkey wants to put a barrier to how far the Kurdish YPG can gain influence,” he said.
Although the United States has relied heavily upon its Kurdish allies in Syria, it does not want to upset its close NATO ally, Turkey.
“The Raqqa operation should not be conducted by the PYD. The Free Syrian Army with active participation of the local population will be enough to beat IS and Turkey is ready to support this. The U.S. must review its policy,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Oct. 27.
However, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include the Kurdish YPG, will take part in any combat operations in Raqqa, according to U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.
“The only force that is capable on any near-term timeline are the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion,” said Lt. General Townsend on Oct. 26 from Baghdad.
The general also said that plans to retake Raqqa are critical, as American intelligence points to a possible terrorist attack on the West emanating from the city.
“We think there’s an imperative to get isolation in place around Raqqa because our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external operations attacks planning going on, … centralized in Raqqa.”
The next president of the United States will have a difficult balancing act to maintain between a key ally in Turkey and a reliable partner in the YPG in Syria.
Raqqa is extraordinarily important for ISIS, says Max Abrahams, professor of political science at Northeastern University.
“After the eventual fall of Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS won’t hold territory with a substantial population, and this has distinguished ISIS from groups like al-Qaeda,” Abrahams said.
“When ISIS loses key territory, the idea of the caliphate becomes patently false, and the group loses its narrative, making recruiting more difficult,” he added.
Raqqa, along with Mosul in Iraq, served as the two capitals of the caliphate. The population of Raqqa is diverse; it is predominantly Sunni Arab but also has a sizable minority of Kurds and Christians.
The city has been pivotal to the operations of ISIS as the location where militants gather and disperse to other battlefields across Syria.
Its geographical proximity to Iraq is also crucial and allows ISIS fighters to travel transnationally at ease.
ISIS rule in Raqqa has been brutal since they took the city on Jan. 14, 2014. Christians were subjected to taxes as non-Muslims and all residents were forced to live under a strict interpretation of Islamic law.