BEIRUT, Lebanon — A new alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters in northern Syria is preparing for an offensive on the Islamic State’s de-facto capital in Syria, Raqqa.
The offensive, which will be backed by US weapons, ammunition and air support, is one part of a revamped Syria strategy being put into action by the Obama administration following a series of setbacks. Last week, the US abandoned a $500 million Pentagon program to train and equip thousands of “moderate” rebel fighters to take on the Islamic State (IS); just a handful of them were left.
The People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia some 20,000-strong that controls the country’s northeast, announced an alliance with a grouping of smaller US-backed Syrian rebel groups in a statement released on Monday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are made up of anti-IS groups that have fought alongside each other in northeastern Syria over the past year. They include a group called the Syrian Arab Coalition — itself made up of four smaller rebel brigades — the Assyrian Military Councils, and the YPG. These groups have been successful pushing back IS in the area with the help of US airstrikes.
"Due to accelerated conditions in both the political and military development and the sensitive phases our country has gone through, there must be an establishment of a unified military force to all Syrians consisting of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and all others living in the geographical locations of Syria,” said the statement, which was posted on a YPG spokesman's Twitter page.
The YPG's 20,000 make up the bulk of the force; the other groups add up to an estimated 5,000.
The planned offensive looks set to be launched in conjunction with a push to close a crucial IS supply route that runs to the Turkish border near Tal Abyad, according to US officials.
The “accelerated conditions” the YPG noted were evident in the speed with which the US has moved to put its new plan into action. US officials announced on Tuesday that the US Air Force had dropped small arms and ammunition to the Syrian Arab Coalition, part of this new formal alliance with the YPG. Separately, one Kurdish official told the Associated Press that the YPG had received some 120 tons of weapons and ammunition.
The entry of Russia into the country’s civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad has made his removal — a key stated aim of the US — significantly more difficult.
Russia claims its intervention is aimed at defeating IS, but the majority of its raids have targeted Western-friendly rebel groups, including those who have received US support in the past.
But there were signs this week that a response to Russia’s intervention is being put into practice on the ground.
Rebel commanders battling Assad have reported receiving dramatically increased supplies of American-made anti-tank missiles. Such missiles have been making their way to vetted rebel groups in Syria via a CIA program since 2013, but the Russian intervention appears to have opened the floodgates.
“We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them,” one rebel commander told The New York Times.
The increased support of groups fighting Assad appears to be aimed at hampering a Russian-backed government offensive currently underway to retake areas lost to rebels this summer.
The new two-pronged US strategy represents a much more active role in a conflict the Obama administration has been reluctant to take ownership of. But there are pitfalls ahead.
The Islamic State has shown a remarkable resilience in the face of a coordinated campaign against it by more than a dozen countries. It remains unclear whether the Syrian Democratic Forces will be strong enough to retake Raqqa, even with US air support.
The very nature of the coalition also presents problems for the US. The YPG, the largest contingent in the new alliance, is the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group that is engaged in a bitter conflict with Turkey.
The US has walked a fine line in its support for the YPG in order to avoid angering Turkey, a key ally. Turkey has repeatedly warned the US against supporting the group, doing so even more pointedly than usual on Tuesday.
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"With support from Russia, the PYD [the YPG's political wing] is trying to capture land between Jarablus and Azaz, going west of the Euphrates. We will never accept this," a Turkish official told Reuters.
“Direct support to the Kurdish groups is politically sensitive, since it is common knowledge that whatever these militias call themselves — YPG, YPJ, PYD, and so on — they are in effect a Syrian branch of the PKK,” says Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “For reasons of political expediency, the Obama administration prefers to pretend that these are separate groups, because they need the PKK as an ally against the jihadis in Syria and to some extent in Iraq, too.”
To make matters worse, an Amnesty International report released on Tuesday accuses the YPG of forcible displacement and home demolitions in the areas it controls.
With Russia’s entry into the war, Assad looks stronger than he has in a long time. The US has until now been careful with who it allowed to receive its heavy weapons, but that caution appears to have subsided.
The addition of more weapons, more actors, and superpowers with divergent aims into the Syrian conflict makes the likelihood of an end to the fighting even more distant.