Thursday, June 30, 2016

Arab Tribes Must Fight the Islamic State

The tribes in eastern Syria have been driven in different directions by the Assad regime, outside actors, and their own self-interest, leaving the coalition with a complex web to untangle before it can fully uproot IS.

This week, Kurdish and Arab fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces pushed west into Islamic State-controlled territory in a bid to seize the town of Manbij. Only days earlier, however, the beginnings of a longer southward campaign -- to retake the IS "capital" of Raqqa -- were set in motion when the SDF began attacking IS positions in Balikh Valley, about fifty kilometers north of the city.

The latter offensive is far from a blitzkrieg that will bring the SDF to the outskirts of Raqqa promptly; for one thing, the Kurds may be distracted by their oft-stated goal of continuing westward toward Afrin in order to link up their two border enclaves (see PolicyWatch 2542, "The Die Is Cast: The Kurds Cross the Euphrates"). Yet the SDF's main military patron, the United States, has another reason to be cautious about the Raqqa timeline -- before the coalition even thinks about launching a final push on the city, it must rally the Arab tribes in the area, some of whom have pledged allegiance to IS. 

Any such effort will require a thorough understanding of the evolving role that tribes have played there, first under the Assad regime and now under IS rule.