Middle East

Politics delays critical battles against IS in Iraq and Syria

Politics delays critical battles against IS in Iraq and Syria
An excavator digging trenches in the IS-held Syrian town of Jarablus. The area is part of the Manbij pocket, a 90km strip that is the jihadi group’s last crossing zone into Turkey. Photo: Reuters
Sectarian differences and infighting are slowing down progress against militant group
Published: 4:15 AM, May 26, 2016

BAGHDAD — Political rivalries and regional power struggles in and around Iraq and Syria are hindering what will be one of the most important campaigns in the war against Islamic State (IS).

Politics, and not military matters, are delaying the most critical battles against IS in Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. In the two years since IS seized Mosul, United States officials have said preparations to retake the city have been incredibly hard, compounded by sectarian differences and infighting among various groups within the country.

The same scenario is reflected in the Manbij pocket near the Turkish border and IS’ de facto capital Raqqa in Syria.


Tension is present in an area known as the Manbij pocket, a 90km strip of land along the Turkey-Syria border stretching from the village of al-Rai to the town of Jarablus, and southward towards cities such as Manbij. As the jihadi group’s last crossing zone into Turkey, it offers a gateway to Europe.

“Manbij is there for the taking,” said Mr Aaron Stein at the Atlantic Council. “The only reason Manbij and Jarablus are still in IS hands is political.”

The problem lies with the rivalries between coalition partners. In recent weeks, Turkish and coalition-backed Syrian rebels captured al-Rai. According to people in the area at the time of the attack, US and Turkish forces were sometimes at odds and poorly co-ordinated the campaign, which in turn sparked tensions between the groups they backed. The triumph evaporated as IS recaptured the area under the cover of explosions, sending thousands of refugees fleeing towards Turkey. Since then, this western corner of the Manbij pocket has been stuck in a tug of war between IS and Syrian rebels.

Western forces have a more capable ally nearby eager to do the job: The People’s Protection Units, known by their Kurdish acronym YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The YPG has chipped away at IS territory under coalition air cover, retaking nearly all Kurdish areas of eastern Syria.

The US said it has tried to attract Arab rebels to ally with the YPG under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), hoping this could create a force more committed to fighting IS than ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad. But most Arab rebels, who have strong links with Turkey, are wary of joining, saying they get second-class status to the favoured Kurdish forces.

With Turkey fighting the PKK on its own soil, the US-Kurdish alliance is straining American co-operation with Ankara. At the same time, many rebel groups are still focused on their war with the Assad regime that foreign powers say only a settlement in Geneva can end. As peace talks and a partial ceasefire flounder, that still looks far off.


Rebels in the area are also riven with rivalries between those groups closer to Turkey and those allied to Washington. Among US-backed groups, there are even differences between those backed by the Pentagon’s “Train and Equip” scheme, and those from an older CIA programme.

“The result is that some of these groups are not coordinating with each other,” said one rebel leader. “So how can they agree on the same point of attack or defence?”

The potential for Kurdish-Arab tension is especially evident in the coalition’s efforts to recapture Raqqa, which is seen as the most vulnerable to an offensive. Residents say speculation is rising of an imminent attack in the area.

At the weekend, they said coalition planes dropped fliers telling them “the time has come to leave”, and said IS announced at Friday prayers that civilians could move into the Raqqa countryside.

Demographically, Raqqa is overwhelmingly Arab. But only the Kurdish-dominated SDF is within range of the Syrian city and its Arab forces are few.

“If we’re purely talking cities, Raqqa is easier to take (than Mosul),” said a senior US official.

“But the composition of a holding force there is much harder to come up with. I don’t think it would make sense to take a city and then leave it — we’ve learned in the past (in Iraq and Afghanistan) what that means.”

Critics say the sections of the Obama administration that have been the biggest proponents of the US-Kurdish alliance, including parts of the military, have failed to realise how damaging that focus has become.

Many Arabs fear a repeat of the Kurdish takeover of Tel Abyad to the north last year, where Human Rights Watch accused Kurdish forces of ethnic cleansing. Arab-Kurdish hostilities are surging across northern Syria, leading to fierce battles around Aleppo, often prodded by Turkey, which wants rebels to weaken the PKK’s sister force. This fighting will be hard to extinguish, even if IS is defeated.

“It is just one of those things where you have to accept the consequences that go along with what you’re doing,” said Mr Philip Gordon, former senior director for the Middle East at the White House. “I don’t think the Kurds are the recipe for either forcing change in Damascus or taking Raqqa and stabilising the east of the country. So even if it is useful in some ways, it doesn’t solve the overall problem.”

The coalition is trying to implement a plan to choke Raqqa by taking the surrounding area, but it still needs a bigger Arab force to hold those towns. Washington recently deployed 250 more US troops to bolster Syrian forces fighting IS. The SDF’s own Arab members remain wary of efforts to encourage more Arab groups to join the alliance.

“We are like people walking barefoot on a burning surface,” said one commander of the Thuwar Raqqa brigade, an Arab rebel group that is part of the SDF. “It is a forced marriage.”

Some Syrian opposition figures who once considered joining forces with the SDF are now opposed, suspecting that the US and Russia are working towards a deal to leave Mr Assad in power. “The goal now is just to hold out until the next (US) administration,” said one Syrian opposition adviser.

In Mosul, residents are wary of the forces trying to liberate them, fearing they will be blamed for the IS takeover. “Saying they are from Mosul now makes them guilty by association,” said Ms Rasha Aqeedi, an Iraqi academic from Al-Mesbar Center, Dubai.

Such tension could leave room for IS to exploit. That seems to be the strategy it is already pursuing in Baghdad, where car bombs have killed 200 people over the past 10 days, mostly in Shia districts.

There has been no outbreak of sectarian conflict yet, but anger at the government is rising. “The dynamics that led to IS are still there,” said the Kurdish official. “There’s been no change.” FINANCIAL TIMES