Sig­nif­i­cant U.S. mil­i­tary role in Syria pro­posal

Plan to seize Raqqa would arm Kurds de­spite Turkey’s ob­jec­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KAREN DEYOUNG AND LIZ SLY

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, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials.

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 Obama 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 de­ci­sion­mak­ing au­thor­ity down the mil­i­tary line from Wash­ing­ton.

Pres­i­dent Trump, who cam­paigned on a pledge to ex­pand the fight against the mil­i­tants in Syria, Iraq and be­yond, re­ceived the plan Mon­day af­ter hav­ing given 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.

The United States had promised the Turks that Kur­dish con­trol would not ex­tend to the west be­yond the nearby Euphrates River, and Man­bij was turned over to the Man­bij Mil­i­tary Coun­cil, Arab fighters within the SDF. Kur­dish po­lice are in charge of lo­cal se­cu­rity, but the Amer­i­cans have in­sisted that YPG fighters have largely left the scene.

Turkey dis­agrees and has long threat­ened to forcibly eject the Kurds, who it says are af­fil­i­ated with the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party, or PKK, a des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion in both Turkey and the United States that is wag­ing an in­sur­gency in­side Turkey for greater au­ton­omy. Af­ter Turk­ish troops and their Syr­ian rebel al­lies took the nearby Syr­ian town of Al-Bab from the Is­lamic State on Feb. 23, the Turk­ish-led force be­gan ad­vanc­ing to­ward Man­bij and has cap­tured at least two vil­lages.

On Thurs­day, as Turk­ish shells reached the out­skirts of the town, the Man­bij Mil­i­tary Coun­cil an­nounced that it had in­vited the gov­ern­ment of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad to take over sev­eral nearby vil­lages as part of a deal bro­kered by Rus­sia to avoid con­flict with the Turks.

On Fri­day, Moscow an­nounced that Rus­sian and Syr­ian “hu­man­i­tar­ian” con­voys were head­ing to­ward Man­bij. Pen­tagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told re­porters in Wash­ing­ton that the con­voys also in­cluded “some ar­mored equip­ment.”

Davis said that the U.S. gov­ern­ment had been “in­formed” of the move­ments by Rus­sia but that “it’s noth­ing that we’re party to.”

Mean­while, pho­to­graphs posted on so­cial me­dia showed U.S. mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles headed into Man­bij from the east.

On Satur­day, the U.S. mil­i­tary con­firmed that it had “in­creased force pres­ence in and around Man­bij to de­ter hos­tile acts, en­hance gov­er­nance and en­sure there’s no per­sis­tent YPG pres­ence,” ef­fec­tively insert­ing U.S. forces to keep two coali­tion mem­bers — Turkey and the Syr­ian Kurds — from fight­ing.

In post­ings on his Twit­ter ac­count, coali­tion spokesman Col. John L. Dor­rian said the coali­tion “has taken this de­lib­er­ate ac­tion to re­as­sure Coali­tion [mem­bers] & part­ner forces, de­ter ag­gres­sion and keep fo­cus on de­feat­ing ISIS,” an acro­nym for the Is­lamic State.

The United States and Rus­sia have man­aged to avoid con­fronta­tion in Syria’s sep­a­rate civil war, where they are on op­pos­ing sides. Trump has said re­peat­edly that the two pow­ers should co­op­er­ate against the Is­lamic State, and he has in­di­cated that the fu­ture of Rus­sia-backed As­sad is of less con­cern to him.

The Pen­tagon dis­ap­proves of pos­si­ble U.S.-Rus­sia co­op­er­a­tion, although U.S. of­fi­cials are not un­happy at the buf­fer Rus­sia and Syria now ap­pear to be cre­at­ing be­tween Turkey and the Kurds, or the prospect of the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment mov­ing into Man­bij. A pos­i­tive re­sult, of­fi­cials said, would not only pre­vent Turk­ish forces and their Syr­ian al­lies — many of whom are on the ji­hadist side of the anti-As­sad rebel coali­tion — from mov­ing into the town, but it would also po­ten­tially push any re­main­ing YPF forces to the east­ern side of the Euphrates.

While Turkey has sup­ported rebel forces fight­ing against As­sad, it has never come into di­rect con­flict with the Syr­ian mil­i­tary, and U.S. of­fi­cials be­lieve it would far rather have the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment in charge of Man­bij than the Kurds. There are hopes that Moscow, which has been si­mul­ta­ne­ously work­ing to im­prove re­la­tions with Turkey, can help per­suade Er­do­gan to back off.

What the Amer­i­cans man­i­festly do not want to see hap­pen is the cre­ation of a new mil­i­tary front and po­ten­tial con­fla­gra­tion around Man­bij that would drain both at­ten­tion and re­sources away from plans for Raqqa. With the city be­lieved to be the cen­ter of Is­lamic State plan­ning for over­seas at­tacks, the of­fen­sive is seen as ur­gent and has al­ready been de­layed from orig­i­nal plans to be­gin in Fe­bru­ary.

In his fi­nal days in of­fice, former pres­i­dent Barack Obama ap­proved plans to send two or three Apache at­tack he­li­copters to the Syr­ian theater but de­ferred ap­proval of arm­ing the Kurds as part of the SDF. Rather than mov­ing im­me­di­ately on the plan al­ready in place, Trump at the end of Jan­uary or­dered the Pen­tagon to draw up new op­tions by the end of Fe­bru­ary.

With the only real al­ter­na­tive be­ing to use U.S. ground troops against Raqqa, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis has stuck with the ba­sic out­line of the plan drawn up un­der Obama, of­fi­cials said. The com­bined Syr­ian Arab-Kur­dish force, now num­ber­ing more than 50,000, has moved steadily to within less than six miles of the out­skirts of Raqqa in an iso­la­tion phase that is ex­pected to be com­pleted in the com­ing weeks.

Even if Turkey does di­rect its forces south to­ward Raqqa, the hope is that the dif­fi­cult ter­rain they would have to travel would pre­vent them from reach­ing there un­til af­ter the of­fen­sive is well un­der­way.

Rather than a whole­sale re­vi­sion, the new pro­posal calls for in­creased U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion, with more per­son­nel and equip­ment and less-re­stric­tive rules. As they have in sup­port of the Iraqi mil­i­tary in Mo­sul, U.S. fixed-wing air­craft and at­tack he­li­copters would ac­tively back the ground force. U.S.-owned and -op­er­ated ar­tillery would be moved into Syria to pound the mil­i­tants from afar, while more Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions troops would move closer to the front lines — re­quir­ing more U.S. mil­i­tary as­sets to pro­tect them.

The SDF — both Kurds and Arabs — would be sup­plied with weaponry along with ve­hi­cles and equip­ment to travel through and dis­arm what are ex­pected to be ex­ten­sive mine­fields and other im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices along the way.

Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der also di­rected the Pen­tagon to rec­om­mend changes to Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­stric­tions on mil­i­tary rules of en­gage­ment that went be­yond those re­quired by in­ter­na­tional law. Prin­ci­pal among them is an Obama ex­ec­u­tive or­der, signed last sum­mer, im­pos­ing strict rules to avoid civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. It is not known whether the new mil­i­tary pro­posal would lift those re­stric­tions. Sly re­ported from Beirut. Zakaria Zakaria in Is­tan­bul and Heba Habib in Stock­holm con­trib­uted to this re­port.

DELIL SOULEIMAN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Mem­bers of the Man­bij Mil­i­tary Coun­cil, Arab fighters who are part of the U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, pre­pare to head to the front lines on the out­skirts of the north­ern town of Man­bij.

LEB. Al-Bab Aleppo Hama Homs Da­m­as­cus Man­bij JOR­DAN Source: IHS Jane’s Con­flict Mon­i­tor as of Feb. 27 TURKEY IRAQ THE WASH­ING­TON POST

As­sad regime Is­lamic State Sunni in­sur­gents Kur­dish groups

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