Fighting ISIS: The Road to and beyond Raqqa


In Raqqa the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) faces its toughest test to date in Syria. The primary challenge in capturing the majority-Arab city on the Euphrates river lies not in the fight itself, though that may well prove costly. Rather, it arises parallel to the offensive and will increase the day after: first, how to handle the explosive geopolitical dynamics surrounding the battle; these already have spurred the 25 April Turkish airstrikes against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in north-eastern Syria and their comrades in nearby north-western Iraq, and the risk of further escalation is high. Secondly, how to secure and govern Raqqa once it is wrested from ISIS. And finally, how to address a potentially more pivotal battleground with ISIS in oil-rich Deir al-Zour province downstream.

A major headache lies in the U.S. choice of partner in its push for Raqqa. Since September 2014, Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have coordinated with the expanding, though still modest, U.S. military role in northern Syria, both supported by airstrikes carried out by a U.S.-led military coalition. This cooperation has yielded significant military successes against ISIS but also dramatically extended the area the YPG controls. The YPG may be an essential partner for Washington, but it also is a highly problematic one, because it is the armed Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, which the U.S. lists as a terrorist organisation, and which is locked in a round of violence with Turkey, a NATO member that is indispensable to U.S. counter-terror efforts and to any attempt to de-escalate and ultimately end the Syrian civil war.

The YPG now operates under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella grouping designed to facilitate recruitment among Arabs and provide an additional nominal degree of separation between U.S. support and the PKK. While the SDF has grown in recent months to include a notable number of Arab recruits, in practice it remains squarely under YPG command and wholly reliant upon the PKK-trained Kurdish fighters who form its backbone. That is obvious to anyone dealing with the SDF, and indeed to Turkish officials, whose frustration over their NATO ally’s empowerment of a PKK affiliate has soared in proportion with that affiliate’s military progress.

Within this alphabet soup of acronyms lie difficult, potentially crucial decisions for the Trump administration. Turkey is pressing the U.S. not to use the SDF to take Raqqa, suggesting it should partner with Ankara and its Syrian rebel allies instead. But U.S. officials see the YPG-led SDF as more capable and much better positioned, and coordination between U.S. and SDF forces on the ground is already deep. Few in Washington view the Turkish counter-offer as a viable alternative if the U.S. wishes to take the city within the next several months.

By most accounts, the U.S. administration appears to have concluded that the benefits of driving ISIS from Raqqa as soon as possible justify the potential costs of further damaging Washington’s strategic alliance with Ankara and the risks associated with attempting to seize an overwhelmingly Arab city of some 200,000 with a Kurdish-dominated force. Two critical questions remain: what options are available to mitigate those costs and risks? And how to prepare for even steeper challenges awaiting further east in Deir al-Zour?

This briefing outlines four key points to consider and four recommendations to help address them. It draws on four Crisis Group research trips to northern Syria, two to Sinjar in northern Iraq, another to PKK headquarters in Iraq’s Qandil mountains, extensive discussions with senior YPG, PKK, Turkish and U.S. officials, and Crisis Group’s ongoing conversations with a broad range of the conflict’s other actors and influencers.

I.Many Acronyms, Same Chain of Command

The YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are the PKK’s Syrian affiliates, and there is little prospect for their organic link with the mother party to change in the foreseeable future. Qandil-trained and battle-hardened PKK cadres with years – in some cases decades – of experience in the organisation’s struggle against Turkey hold the most influential positions within the YPG and, by extension, within the SDF’s chain of command; within the PYD-run civil governing bodies that administer YPG-held areas; and within the security forces, such as the Asayesh (security police), which are the backbone of that governance. While most of these cadres are Syrian Kurds (though notable roles are also played by Kurds from Turkey and Iran), loyalty to the PKK’s internal hierarchy appears to override relations to local society. Many also operate largely behind the scenes, or with titles that understate their actual authority, while nominally responsible officials lacking direct ties to the organisation are reduced to placeholders. Though this gives the PKK presence in northern Syria a local face, the reality of who wields power is evident to those living there and should be to external observers as well.

For the U.S., this presents a singular dilemma. While the YPG is indispensable to defeat ISIS, there is no avoiding the fact that the U.S. is backing a military force led by PKK-trained cadres in Syria, while the PKK itself continues an insurgency against a NATO ally. True, Turkey also bears considerable responsibility for the escalation with the PKK that has occurred since 2015. But Turkish officials point out what they consider U.S. double standards: the U.S. continues to treat the Syrian jihadist group Hey’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly known successively as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) as an al-Qaeda affiliate, arguing that their shared ideology, joint objectives and loyalty to a common leader (Ayman al-Zawahiri) render HTS’s disavowal of organisational ties to al-Qaeda meaningless. Turkey is applying similar logic toward the PKK’s relationship with the YPG and PYD.

PKK-trained cadres’ experience, discipline and effective command-and-control structures have enabled the YPG to punch above its military weight, smoothly expand its ranks and secure areas under its control – which now include a broad swath of territory encompassing most of north-eastern Syria and, separately, the Afrin canton north of Aleppo. Since September 2014, these factors have also rendered it an especially appealing partner to the U.S. military effort, particularly in comparison to less organised, more divided and less militarily experienced Syrian rebel factions that have benefitted from U.S. support elsewhere in the country.

The PKK’s ideology – the product of imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan’s evolving philosophy and the personality cult constructed around him – also provides certain advantages. Indoctrinated YPG members fight with a zeal rivalling that of the war’s most hardline jihadists, and Öcalan’s emphasis on broadening the PKK’s agenda beyond Kurdish nationalism provides an intellectual framework for incorporating new recruits – within the SDF and even the YPG itself – from other components of Syrian society. (Whether those recruits connect with the PKK’s ideology, however, is another story – SDF officials acknowledge that many do not.)

Yet for all this success, the PKK’s approach to governance and continued prioritisation of insurgency within Turkey leave its Syrian affiliates with key vulnerabilities that will become more acute as they attempt to seize and control Raqqa.

II.The YPG is Risking Overstretch

The role of PKK-trained cadres is similarly central to governance. They hold the most influential positions in the Asayesh security forces that control these areas and the “Democratic Self-Administration” that administers them. Rhetoric aside, their governance essentially entails single-party rule built on a social contract of three pillars: military success, security and provision of a bare minimum of services necessary to sustain daily life. The Self-Administration has created a multi-layered array of local bodies designed, in theory, to foster broad participation in governance; in practice, these do not hold meaningful authority or political influence. They are best understood as mechanisms that co-opt locals through access to services.

In majority-Kurdish areas, this model appears sustainable for the time being. Complaints are common, especially concerning mandatory conscription, the Self-Administration’s chaotic handling of the school system, infrequent electricity and arbitrary arrests of the PYD’s Kurdish political opponents. Another huge problem is the economy, which is deeply constricted by Turkey’s closure of its border with YPG-held areas. On the Iraqi border, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG, controlled by the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, a close ally of Turkey), limits trade to a small and unreliable trickle. That said, judging by the dismal standards of wartime Syria, the net governance result nevertheless appears positive: YPG-held areas are far safer and better administered than those controlled by opposition factions, and the security services are much less brutal than those of the regime and ISIS. Moreover, there is palpable Kurdish pride, even among some critics, in the YPG’s military accomplishments and in the extent to which those have transformed Kurdish language and culture from suppressed to locally dominant.

Outside majority-Kurdish areas, however, this governance model appears fragile. Thousands of Arabs now participate in YPG-led military efforts – whether due to conscription, need of salaries or desire to liberate home areas from ISIS. But they are doing so on behalf of an organisation whose militantly secular culture clashes with local norms, whose Kurdish identity many view as a threat and which has shown no inclination to share power meaningfully.

Efforts by the YPG (and its Self-Administration) to achieve Arab buy-in to its project have been partial and haphazard and do not amount to a meaningful share in governance. Official rhetoric signals inclusiveness and pluralism, but YPG flags and posters of Öcalan adorn streets and town squares (including in majority-Arab areas) in a manner typical of autocratic, single-party rule elsewhere in the region. Arab figures willing to participate in the Self-Administration are handed impressive titles but no real authority. Local governance bodies function as channels to convey complaints and petitions rather than as platforms for effective participation, while ultimate power of decision rests with the Qandil-trained PKK cadres. Beyond that, these institutions are limited to the distribution of meagre services that are unlikely to purchase the loyalty of otherwise sceptical citizens.

That leaves the Self-Administration’s security provision as the primary pillar for its claim to legitimacy. Yet, even this asset can turn into a liability: residents appear relieved at the degree of safety and order provided, but wary of the PKK cadres-led, Kurdish-dominated Asayesh security forces that uphold it. During a March 2017 Crisis Group visit to the majority-Arab town of Tel Abyad and nearby areas, the Asayesh’s efforts to staff checkpoints with local Arab personnel, while notable, were deemed insignificant by Arab residents. As an Arab professional participating in the Self-Administration put it, “most of the problems the Self-Administration is asked to solve have been created by the security forces in the first place”. Another added: “The Arab recruits have no authority; people’s [problems] come from the Asayesh cadres”. Arbitrary detentionsare a particularly common complaint and a reminder that the success of the YPG and Asayesh in limiting ISIS attacks must be measured against the heavy-handed tactics they employ, which themselves can drive new recruits toward ISIS.

As a result, it is easy to imagine how the expansion of YPG control to additional Arab population centres could strain its governing capacity to breaking point. If the YPG and its allies do indeed capture Raqqa, stabilising and controlling it with the organisation’s current model could backfire, enabling the post-ISIS re-emergence of a jihadist insurgency (and accompanying racketeering networks) in asymmetric form – the very method that allowed the organisation’s predecessor (al-Qaeda in Iraq) to survive and rebound from apparent defeat ten years ago.

III.Northern Syria Remains Tied to the PKK-Turkey Conflict

Serious though the governance challenge may prove, it is the PKK-Turkey conflict that poses the biggest threat to the YPG and thus to U.S. counter-terror objectives in Syria. This fact was underscored by the 25 April Turkish airstrikes on YPG and PKK targets in north-eastern Syria and Sinjar (in north-western Iraq), which reportedly killed twenty YPG fighters and, in an apparent mistake, five members of the KDP’s peshmerga force, which split control of Sinjar with rival PKK-backed forces in a tense cohabitation. More extensive Turkish military action could seriously hamper a U.S.-backed SDF offensive on Raqqa city by forcing the YPG to divert resources toward its own defence. And even if the Raqqa campaign proceeds smoothly, the threat Turkey poses will remain.

In contrast to the mountainous areas where the PKK mainly operates in Turkey and northern Iraq (where the organisation has its headquarters), the Syrian territory the YPG controls is largely flat and does not lend itself to the guerrilla warfare in which its fighters excel. If Ankara were to launch a major military intervention against the YPG-PYD in northern Syria, there is little the PKK and its affiliates themselves could do to stop a rapid advance by the capable, well-equipped Turkish army. Their hope has been that the presence of U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Russian personnel in YPG-held areas would deter such an attack. That always was a gamble, and – as the Turkish strikes demonstrate – one that will only grow riskier over time.

While the Turkish leadership’s public rhetoric has fluctuated dramatically (particularly in the build-up to the 16 April referendum on presidential powers), the message conveyed by Turkish officials in private has remained relatively consistent: The YPG-PYD are part and parcel of the PKK; the PKK has deployed the YPG’s Syrian manpower, resources, tactics and newly acquired battle skills in military operations within Turkey (an allegation difficult to verify); and so long as the PKK’s armed insurgency continues, the YPG-PYD will remain in the Turkish military’s crosshairs. Turkish officials depicted the 25 April strikes as aimed at disrupting alleged PKK efforts to move fighters and weapons across the Syrian and Iraqi borders in support of operations in Turkey. But Ankara is also concerned that a lead role for the YPG in Raqqa will deepen its alliance with Washington, add to its international legitimacy and thus strengthen the PKK’s strategic hand; given the timing of the strikes, disrupting preparations for a YPG-led Raqqa offensive may have been another central motivation.

Prior to the strikes, the YPG’s on-the-ground cooperation with the U.S. and Russia appeared to be the main factor limiting direct violence between it and Turkey. The most notable example occurred in February-March 2017, as Turkey began pressing against YPG-backed local forces outside Manbij, a city west of the Euphrates taken by the YPG-led SDF from ISIS in August 2016. YPG fighters subsequently withdrew to the town’s perimeter, leaving locals as the face of security and governance. Yet, this is a particularly sensitive area for Turkey, which understands Manbij to be an essential chain in the YPG’s efforts to connect its north-eastern holdings to Afrin, and views the YPG’s thinly-disguised continued control as a breach of earlier U.S. assurances that the group would withdraw to the river’s east bank. In this case, both Washington and Moscow manoeuvred, apparently without coordination, to successfully deter Turkish attack: the U.S. dispatched clearly marked armoured vehicles to patrol sensitive areas along the front, while Russia brokered a deal between the YPG and Syrian regime to deploy a small contingent of regime and Russian personnel as a buffer between YPG and Turkish-backed forces.

While such manoeuvres have succeeded in averting further escalation in some cases, the PKK has been running a huge risk in continuing insurgency inside Turkey while expecting Washington and Moscow to protect its Syrian affiliates from Turkish retribution. Though the U.S. has strong incentive to safeguard the YPG while offensives against ISIS continue, ultimately it will likely view relations with Turkey – a NATO member and critical ally – as more important to its broader strategic interests. In turn, Russia’s calculus is informed primarily by its desire to preserve its ally, the Syrian regime, which itself seeks to reassert authority within YPG-held areas once it has regained the capability to do so. The fact that U.S. objections failed to deter Turkey’s 25 A