The new coali­tion to de­stroy the Is­lamic State

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - David Ig­natius

— The raw Sunni re­cruits in crisp cam­ou­flage uni­forms, pop­ping off rounds at the fir­ing range at a U.S. train­ing camp here, il­lus­trate the dilemma for the United States as it seeks to form a strong mil­i­tary force to drive the Is­lamic State from its cap­i­tal, Raqqah.

The United States could try to build the Sunni army it would want, ide­ally, to cap­ture Raqqah, a Sunni city. But that might take years. Or it can go with the army it has, which is dom­i­nated by the tough, ex­pe­ri­enced Kur­dish fight­ers from the YPG mili­tia. They’re anath­ema to Tur­key, to the north, and to the of­fi­cial Syr­ian po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion. But the ram­pag­ing Syr­ian Kurds get the job done.

The United States is try­ing to do some of both, by build­ing a new op­po­si­tion coali­tion un­der the makeshift ban­ner of the “Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces,” or SDF, which in­te­grates Sun­nis, Chris­tians, Turk­men and other inex-


pe­ri­enced fight­ers with the larger, pow­er­house that is the YPG. That’s not ideal po­lit­i­cally but it makes mil­i­tary sense. “We do, ab­so­lutely, have to go with what we’ve got,” says Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, the Cent­com com­man­der who over­sees the war here, at the end of a long Satur­day spent tour­ing SDF bases. A small group of re­porters was on the trip on con­di­tion that we couldn’t write about it un­til we had left the coun­try. It was a rare chance to re­port from in­side Syria.

The prac­ti­cal re­al­ity is that only the Kurds — not the Sun­nis — have the mus­cle now, and Vo­tel’s job is “to achieve mil­i­tary ob­jec­tives on the ground” by con­tin­u­ing to roll back the Is­lamic State.

This at­tempt to in­te­grate the weaker Sun­nis with stronger Kurds rep­re­sents a more prag­matic al­ter­na­tive to the ear­lier $500 mil­lion “train and equip” pro­gram, which had been in­tended to cre­ate, in ef­fect, a new Sunni-dom­i­nated army, but col­lapsed last sum­mer. De­spite bit­ter ob­jec­tions from Tur­key (which claims the Kurds are part of the “ter­ror­ist” PKK), U.S. com­man­ders de­cided to go with the bat­tle-hard­ened Kur­dish fight­ers who had sav­aged the Is­lamic State in Kobani in 2014 and be­gan to lib­er­ate a big swath of north­east Syria. Start­ing last Oc­to­ber, they tried to graft less-ex­pe­ri­enced Sunni and Chris­tian forces into the SDF coali­tion.

The Syr­ian Kurds are fe­ro­cious fight­ers, men and women alike. We met sev­eral lead­ers of the Kur­dish women’s mili­tia, called the YPJ. Wear­ing beaded head­dresses over mil­i­tary cam­ou­flage, they said they had all fought in front-line com­bat. U.S. ad­vis­ers say the Kur­dish women are so tough they some­times go into bat­tle with sui­cide belts so they won’t be cap­tured by Is­lamic State fight­ers who would turn them into sex slaves.

Amer­i­can ad­vis­ers tell awestruck sto­ries of YPJ war­riors who fought to the last woman in Kobani. The equal­ity of male-fe­male sac­ri­fice, pro­claimed on bill­boards in Kur­dish re­gions, is a breath of fresh air in a Mid­dle East where women’s rights are sup­pressed.

Vo­tel says the United States has learned from ear­lier Syr­ian mis­steps not to try to build a per­fect force, but to work with the al­lies it has. When adding re­cruits to the SDF, he says, “we had to shorten the train­ing pe­riod, and fo­cus it more on com­bat ba­sics,” adapt­ing to the forces that ex­isted rather than try­ing to re­make them.

Sunni sheikhs, al­ways op­por­tunis­tic, seem to be buy­ing into the strat­egy as their best hope against the Is­lamic State. We met three such lead­ers who are send­ing their young tribes­men to fight with the Kur­dish­led group. The sheikhs de­scribed how some mem­bers of their tribes around Raqqah are be­gin­ning to de­fect from the Is­lamic State — and plead­ing for re­lief from the bar­barous ex­trem­ists.

“We found that the YPG is the only force that can lib­er­ate us,” says Sheikh Mo­hammed al-Mila of the Tu­faiha tribe. A sim­i­lar view is ex­pressed by Kino Gabriel, a lo­cal Syr­iac Chris­tian leader whose small mili­tia of 500 to 1,000 has al­lied with the Kurds. The al­ter­na­tive, he says, was “a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion for all of us. None of us could de­fend the area by our­selves.”

Here, at least, the United States can’t be ac­cused of try­ing to build Switzer­land in the Mid­dle East. It’s raw re­alpoli­tik, and some­times the pieces don’t fit. Nu­jin Dirik, the com­man­der of the Kur­dish women’s mili­tia, says she’s fight­ing for a place the Kurds call “Ro­java,” which they hope will be an au­ton­o­mous re­gion some­day. But Col. Ali Hajo, an SDF Arab com­man­der from the north­ern town of Jarablus, says he’s fight­ing for a na­tion called Syria.

David Ig­natius is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at da­vidig­natius@wash­

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