A Syrian Kurdish offensive described last week by U.S. officials as the most effective assault to date on the Islamic State has ground to a virtual halt because of Turkey’s opposition to the advance and Kurdish commanders’ reluctance to extend their frontlines beyond Kurdish areas, Syrian Kurdish and Arab militants say.
The stalling of the offensive, which was aided by U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Syrian Kurdish fighters on the ground, deals a new setback to the Obama administration’s efforts to build an anti-Islamic State coalition among Syrian opposition forces, and it comes amidst a buildup of Russian jet fighters, armored vehicles and personnel near Syria’s coast.
“The Kurdish forces are important because they are America’s boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq,” said Soner Cagaptay, an expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.
The slackening in the drive by the Peoples Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, can be traced through the dramatic drop in the rate of U.S. airstrikes launched against the Islamic State in areas inside and adjacent to the swath of territory along the border with Turkey from which the brutal Islamist movement was expelled by the YPG offensive.
According to releases issued by U.S. Central Command, U.S. aircraft launched 108 strikes in those areas in July, compared to 60 in August and only 35 so far this month. The CENTCOM releases on U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq aren’t published on a daily basis, so there are days for which the numbers of U.S. missions aren’t known. But the trend is clear from the data available.
A CENTCOM spokesman acknowledged that the YPG drive had slowed, but indicated that it could start up again.
“We don’t have any indication that they’re done fighting,” said the spokesman ,Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder. “We can’t talk at this point about when we’d expect to see any significant movement in the future.”
“From an operational standpoint, there are certain things in terms of planning and refitting and solidifying a defensive zone that are taken into account,” he said. “We are continuing to work with these forces.”
U.S. airstrikes are being staged, meanwhile, in support of moderate Syrian Arab rebel groups that are fighting the Islamic State on the western edge of the border strip held by the extremist group, he said.
“There is significant engagement going on right now,” he said. “The situation is very fluid.”
Activists aligned with the YPG said in interviews that the lull in American bombing has allowed the Islamic State to bring in reinforcements and that they’ve lost the critically important momentum that had the militia on the verge of driving the Islamic State from Jarabulus, the main urban center of the Syria-Turkey border strip still held by the Islamist group.
Mustafa Abdi, a Kurdish activist and journalist with close ties to the YPG, said that the Kurds had intended to link the areas they control – the northeastern Jazera and Kobani enclaves with the north central Afrin canton – into a contiguous Kurdish-controlled security zone that effectively would span most of Syria’s 560-mile border with Turkey.
But Turkey, which recently has seen a re-ignition of a decades-old insurgency by separatists of its own Kurdish minority, objected to the plan and threatened to intervene militarily if the YPG moved to capture Jarabulus, a mixed Arab and Turkmen city, because of fears that the Kurds could declare a state on the territory.
“The advance stalled after the Turkish government announced it would intervene on the ground if there was further advancement,” Abdi said.
Local fighters said that the Syrian Kurds also hesitated to carry their offensive into predominantly Arab areas, a reluctance that would undermine U.S. hopes that a Kurdish-led force would spearhead an assault on Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the de facto capital of the Islamic State.
“We could take Raqqa with the YPG’s help,” said Abu Sharja, an Arab who is a commander with a moderate Syrian rebel group called the Raqqa Revolutionaries. “But the Kurds have no interest in Raqqa. They only want to connect the Kurdish areas under their control to form a state.”
Adbi disagreed that the YPG was not interested in moving on Raqqa. But, he said, the group was waiting for a final agreement between Turkey, the United States and moderate Syrian Arab and Turkmen rebel groups before they proceeded.
The YPG leadership has frequently expressed a willingness to support a broader operation against Raqqa if a significant number of other Syrian rebel groups participated. But it appeared to balk at suggestions that the Kurds should proceed alone.
“There is an underlying ethnic conflict here,” said Cagaptay of the Washington Institute. “Raqqa being an Arab city and having been liberated by the YPG would be seen by the locals as being occupied by Kurds.”
A security official in the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, which maintains links with Kurdish forces in Syria and last year sent fighters to assist in the defense of Kobani, a Kurdish town on the Turkish border, said that Turkey’s objection to a Kurdish advance and the YPG’s resistence to entering Arab-dominated territory contributed to the stalling out of the Kurdish offensive.
“The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are the only effective force in either country fighting [the Islamic State] but that’s because we are defending our land and homes and people,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to comment on military operations publicly.
“The Arabs in both countries want our help to defeat Daash but we see this as an Arab problem,” the official said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “We cannot ask our people who have already seen thousands of Kurds die fighting to accept more casualties for an offensive in Raqqa or (the northern Iraqi city of) Mosul when these are primarily Arab areas.”
“The Kurds will participate in a large coalition in both Iraq and Syria,” he added. “But you cannot ask us to win this war alone.”
What is clear is that the offensive that U.S. officials have characterized as the biggest success of the anti-Islamic State campaign so far has cooled at a serious juncture in the Obama administration’s approach to Syria.
The stall-out has come at the same time as the collapse of a $500 million Pentagon program to train and equip 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, with only about 75 fighters operating inside Syria.
Russia, meanwhile, has deployed at least 24 jet fighters, advanced armored vehicles, some 200 marines, and pre-fabricated housing for some 1,500 people at an airbase near the port city of Latakia. Moscow says the deployment is intended to battle the Islamic State, but U.S. officials believe its primary purpose is to save Syria’s embattled president, Bashar Assad.
The U.S. alliance with the YPG was born during the U.S. air campaign last year against Islamic State forces pushing to capture Kobani. The campaign lasted nearly four months, ending in January with Islamic State’s defeat, and saw U.S. airstrikes carefully coordinated with Syrian Kurdish forces.
In the months afterward, the United States continued its coordination with the Kurds, pushing back Islamic State forces throughout northern Syria. U.S. officials provided the YPG with the ability to call in air strikes, communicating directly with a U.S.-run command center in Irbil, Iraq.
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. anti-Islamic State operations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that the YPG, in coordination with some smaller Arab and Turkmen fighting groups, had captured 6,500 square miles in recent months from the Islamic State – an area slightly smaller than New Jersey.
YPG forces also took control of all but about 68 miles of the 560-mile long stretch of border with Turkey that previously had been under Islamic State control, Austin said.
A number of senators complained to Austin about a lack of support for Kurdish groups in Syria. But it appears that Turkey has drawn a diplomatic and military line at Kurdish intervention along this stretch of border to prevent the Kurds from linking the three areas they control. Such a development would give the Kurds near complete control over the border, and Turkish officials feared would allow them to declare a Kurdish state amid the ruins of the Syrian civil war.
It was the YPG’s capture in June of Tal Abyad, a border town, which had been a key Islamic State-controlled crossing with Turkey, that alarmed the Turks.
In the days after the YPG and other Syrian rebel groups took Tal Abyad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the Kurdish advance and warned that Turkey would take military action if the YPG advanced on either Jarabulus or Azzaz, effectively ending the western direction of the offensive. Turkish troops also fired a series of artillery warning shots to deliver a message to the Kurdish militia as it advanced on the town.
“We were ready to go in with an FSA unit composed of Turkmen and Arabs to liberate the city. But we also recognize that the Turks are very concerned about the formation of a Kurdish state in Syria and we made the decision not to confront the Turks directly,” said Abdi, the Kurdish activist and journalist with close ties to the YPG.
Ankara was expected to be an aggressive partner in the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State under an agreement in which it allowed the United States to launch bombing missions from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. Turkey, however, launched fewer than 10 airstrikes against the Islamic State after the accord was reached in late July.
The Turkish air force, however, has conducted scores of missions against camps of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which maintains close links with the YPG. The attacks made clear that a three-year-old cease-fire with the group. More than 100 Turkish security personnel and hundreds of PKK fighters have died in fighting since.
The cease-fire collapsed in July after a suicide bombing in Suruc, Turkey, targeted a gathering of leftist Kudish activists, killing more than 30 people. The PKK condemned the attack and accused the Turkish government of facilitating the Islamic State’s presence along the border with Syria. The day after the bombing, gunmen aligned with the PKK assassinated two Turkish policemen, sparking a wave of violence by both sides that has served to further complicate the Obama administration’s anti-Islamic State efforts.
McClatchy special correspondent Mitchell Prothero reported from Suruc, Landay, from Washington.