June 1, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Next Big Battle for Syria
• The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have reportedly been aiming to press their offensive against the Islamic State west of the Euphrates river near Manbij in Syria
• The battle for Manbij is arguably as consequential as the fight for Raqqa; an SDF victory would further expand and solidify Kurdish influence across a relatively wide stretch of northern Syria, despite strong Turkish opposition
• The Islamic State has indicated that it may prefer to fight in Manbij, looking to exploit the dynamics of the Turkey-Kurdish-U.S. incongruity
• Turkey strongly opposes any form of Kurdish autonomy on its border; U.S. support for the SDF is a serious point of contention between the two NATO members.
The upcoming battle for Raqqa is one of vast symbolic and practical importance; toppling the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate is no small task. Much less publicized, however, is the ongoing battle for Manbij in northern Syria, which may hold more regional importance than the battle for Raqqa. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-supported anti-Islamic State coalition in which the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) play a leading role, are continuing to test Islamic State defenses. The Islamic State has suffered losses near Manbij, but made gains near Marea—the latest example of the group’s ability to exploit any thinness it finds in its opposition. Given its limited capabilities, the anti-Islamic State coalition faces a difficult choice: whether to recapture Manbij or Raqqa first. Turkish support or opposition for either campaign will prove significant in both the near and long term.
Manbij, which is located southwest of Kobani and 30 kilometers west of the Euphrates River, has been a target for the YPG for some time. Though the Islamic State controls Manbij and areas to the west, its grip is tenuous. The current SDF campaign towards Manbij is not simply a needed battle against the Islamic State; it is also a test of wills and priorities for the divided members of the anti-Islamic State coalition. Issues of weapons and logistics, as well as SDF calls for more sustained U.S. support, continue to complicate an already chaotic fight.
Recent reports indicate the SDF has taken control of several villages to the southeast of Manbij, west of the Euphrates. Turkey has been very vocal in its opposition to the possible emergence of a de facto Kurdish zone in northern Syria along the Turkish border. As such, Turkey is highly sensitive to Kurdish gains, as well as Western support for a group Ankara has long viewed as terrorists. Turkey has accused the United States, which is leading the Western support for the SDF, of directly supporting terrorism. The friction between the two NATO members on this matter will not disappear. Turkey’s objection to the survival of the Assad regime is only surpassed by its determination to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish zone of governance in Syria along the lines the Kurdish Regional Government in neighboring Iraq.
Facing a strong near-term likelihood of increasing military pressure from all sides, the Islamic State, with few good options, may prefer a larger battle in Manbij sooner rather than later in Raqqa. Such a battle could escalate tensions between Turkey and the West over support for Kurdish fighters to the point of seriously delaying or complicating the fight against the Islamic State. The closer fighting is to the Turkish border, and the more that Kurds play a leading role, the stronger Turkish objections will be.
The recent diplomatic squabble over images of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) wearing YPG patches is not a superficial issue for Turkey, but rather an indication that the U.S. might be less swayed by Turkish demands and sensitivities than in the past. The rise of the Islamic State was enabled by regional infighting and misguided competition. The U.S. is pressing the military fight against the Islamic State in Syria up to regional lines heretofore widely avoided. If the U.S. continues its support for the SDF in a concentrated push against Manbij in spite of Turkish concerns over a leading Kurdish role, it will be another indication of a widening gulf between Washington and Ankara.
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