A Pentagon plan for the coming assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria, calls for significant U.S. military participation, including increased Special Operations forces, attack helicopters and artillery, and arms supplies to the main Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighting force on the ground.
The military’s favored option among several variations currently under White House review, the proposal would ease a number of restrictions on U.S. activities imposed during the 44th administration.
Officials involved in the planning have proposed lifting a cap on the size of the U.S. military contingent in Syria, currently numbering about 500 Special Operations trainers and advisers to the combined Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. While the Americans would not be directly involved in ground combat, the proposal would allow them to work closer to the front line and would delegate more decision-making authority down the military line from Washington.
45, who campaigned on a pledge to expand the fight against the militants in Syria, Iraq and beyond, received the plan Monday after giving the Pentagon 30 days to prepare it.
But in a conflict where nothing has been as simple as anticipated, the Raqqa offensive has already sparked new alliances. In just the past two days, U.S. forces intended for the Raqqa battle have had to detour to a town in northern Syria to head off a confrontation between two American allied forces — Turkish and Syrian Kurdish fighters. There, they have found themselves effectively side by side with Russian and Syrian government forces with the same apparent objective.
Approval of the Raqqa plan would effectively shut the door on Turkey’s demands that Syrian Kurds, considered terrorists by Ankara, be denied U.S. equipment and kept out of the upcoming offensive. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that arming and including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in the operation is unacceptable and has vowed to move his own troops and Turkish-allied Syrian rebel forces toward Raqqa.
U.S. officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity about the still-secret planning, believe Erdogan’s tough talk is motivated primarily by domestic politics, specifically a desire to bolster prospects for an April 16 nationwide referendum that would transform Turkey’s governing system to give more power to the presidency.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the Baghdad-based U.S. commander of the anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters Wednesday that there was “zero evidence” that the YPG was a threat to Turkey. With some apparent exasperation, Townsend called on all anti-Islamic State forces in northern Syria to stop fighting among themselves and concentrate on the best way to beat the militants.
U.S. talks with Turkey, a NATO ally and coalition member, are ongoing. But events over the past several days in and around the town of Manbij have injected a new element in the conflict that could either help the Americans avoid a direct clash with Ankara, or set the many forces now converging on the town on the path toward a new confrontation.
Manbij, located near the Turkish border about 85 miles northwest of Raqqa, was captured by the Islamic State three years ago and retaken last August by the YPG, backed by U.S. airstrikes and advisers. The town now forms the western edge of a militant-cleared border strip extending to neighboring Iraq.