Preparing to retake Raqqa, the ISIS capital, the U.S. announced yesterday that it would provide heavy weapons to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are dominated by members of the Kurdish YPG militia.
In making this decision, President Trump has upset President Erdogan of Turkey. Attempting to dissuade Trump from arming them, in recent weeks, Erdogan has launched aggressive strikes on YPG forces proximate to embedded U.S. forces. And now that Erdogan's gamble has failed, he may respond with further escalation.
Yet Trump's decision represents a cold-eyed, realistic assessment of means and end. The end, seizing Raqqa, was always going to be complicated. The city is comparatively small and compressed against the Euphrates, which gives assaulting forces a tactical advantage as they move to surround it. But it is also ISIS's political and military citadel, and the group's forces will fight with everything they have to hold it. Correspondingly, a significant ground force is needed to take the city. But arming the SDF with heavy weapons and supporting U.S. and allied Special Operations Forces (President Macron is likely to provide French forces) presents Trump with an alternative to sending thousands of American infantrymen into a new Fallujah.
For one, the YPG -- and thus SDF -- is not an extension of the U.S. Military. It has expansive territorial interests in northern Syria and is mistrusted by Raqqa's Sunni-Arab population. As the human-rights group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently put it to me, "people in Raqqa don't like the YPG, SDF."
And that concern speaks to a broader truth: America's long-term strategic interests are ill-matched to short-term temptations. If the U.S. allows the YPG to retake Raqqa and alienate its Sunni-Arab population in the process, violent Sunni extremist groups will benefit. Those groups have flourished in the Syrian Civil War as Bashar al-Assad's regime has destroyed Sunni communities, and if the YPG copies Assad, it will have the same second-order effect. As Henry Jackson Society fellow and Syrian Civil War scholar Kyle Orton notes, YPG malfeasance would "set the stage for the Islamic State to revive in the not-too-distant future." (It needn't have been this way. If, as I suggested in November 2014, President Obama had armed the Sunni-Arab tribes of eastern Syria, they could have led this fight. But he did not, and those tribes have now been co-opted by ISIS.)
That's not the only complication. Unless Trump is ready to counter Turkey's pushback, other problems lurk. Vladimir Putin will be salivating at the chance to manipulate Erdogan's howling displeasure with Trump's decision, drawing the Turkish leader closer to the Kremlin's orbit. To avoid that pitfall, Trump will have to employ greater pressure against Erdogan, making clear to him that he will lose more by spurning the U.S. than he gains by accepting Putin's faux-friendship.
That said, if Trump can corral Erdogan, he'll earn a side benefit: He will prove that America remains both the military linchpin of NATO and its decisive political leader. And that will influence Turkey and other nations such as Germany to pay heed to American expectations. Presently, those nations are having their NATO cake and eating it, too.
Trump still holds another ace in his hand, too: Recent U.S. ground-force deployments afford him the leverage needed to deter Turkish escalation, Russian malevolence, and Syrian atrocities while protecting Raqqa's civilian population during the assault. The SDF needs U.S. forces, which means the U.S. can insist that any YPG/SDF commanders who disrespect Raqqa's residents are purged. The U.S. thus has the power to nudge mutually suspicious stakeholders toward peace here.
The die has been cast. Now, the Trump administration must ensure Raqqa's liberation does not come at the cost of ISIS's military rebirth.