America’s top anti-Islamic State general is putting operations to retake ISIS’s capital city of Raqqa on hold because Turkey is wrangling with U.S.-backed forces inside Syria.
Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend’s comments to The Wall Street Journal lie in stark contrast to Turkish President Recep Tayypid Erdogan’s suggestion Tuesday that Turkey will join the U.S. in a joint operation to retake Raqqa.
“Obama wants to do some things jointly concerning Raqqa,” Erdogan told journalists on his way back from a meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday.
U.S. strategy in Syria relies on a multi-ethnic coalition of fighters called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the U.S. gives both material and military support.
While the SDF is ostensibly composed of multi-ethnic groups, the largest and most capable battlefield fighters are from Syria’s Kurdish minority. This Kurdish contingent has several hundred U.S. special operators embedded with them on the battlefield, and led one of the most successful U.S. offensives against an ISIS held town on the Turkish border.
Turkey, however, regards any Kurdish groups in Syria as much as a threat to its existence as ISIS. When Turkey invaded Syria on August 24, it billed its intervention as a way to get ISIS out of northern Syria. In reality, the intervention was much more about denying Kurds an opportunity to solidify its hold over a major swath of territory in Syria. Turkey even clashed with U.S. backed rebels, throwing a major wrench into the U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS in Syria.
“Our soldiers should come together and discuss, then we will do what is necessary,” Erdogan reportedly told Obama on Tuesday. Turkey’s opposition to the only reliable U.S. proxy in Syria raises questions as to which force, if any, could realistically assault Raqqa. In the meantime, the U.S. Anti-ISIS effort is focused on retaking the city of Mosul in Iraq.
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