Exclusive: Though the U.S. has no legal right to operate inside Syria, Official Washington is boasting about its plans to liberate Raqqa from ISIS. But another problem: the battle plan makes no sense, says Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
In her final debate with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton promised that the United States and its allies would follow up the offensive against ISIS-occupied Mosul with an assault on ISIS headquarters in Raqqa in neighboring Syria. Last week, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter assured the press that an offensive was on the way.
“It starts in the next few weeks,” Carter said. “That has long been our plan and we will be capable of resourcing both,” i.e. dual assaults on Mosul and Raqqa.
“We think this is the right moment to begin pushing in Raqqa,” a Pentagon spokesman added on Monday. “There is a plan in place to begin this.”
Except that the more the administration assures the public that an assault is just around the corner, the more distant it seems to become. In fact, it looks more and more like an assault on Raqqa won’t occur at all. The reason is simple. The strategy is half-baked even by U.S. standards.
The effort to take back Mosul is off to a dangerous enough start as it is. The problem is not the military campaign, which seems to be making good progress as Iraqi troops enter the city for the first time in two years. Rather, it is the larger political setting.
Powerful cross-currents are at work involving the Iraqi army, Turkey, Iranian-backed Shi‘ite militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces, or Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s neo-Ottoman president, has unsettled the Iraqis by claiming that Mosul lies within his country’s traditional sphere of influence and by vowing to protect the city’s Sunni population against revenge by Al-Hashd for anti-Shi‘ite atrocities committed by ISIS (also known as ISIL, Islamic State, and Daesh).
Unfortunately, Erdogan’s fears are not unfounded since Al-Hashd has already been accused of atrocities in Tikrit and Fallujah while at least one militia leader has sworn to take vengeance in Mosul as well. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Clinton’s Slog Deeper into the Big Muddy.”]
Although the Iraqi government has promised that the militias will confine their activities to the city’s outskirts, the Iraqi army is seen as hardly less threatening since its Shi‘ite flags are now ubiquitous. Mosul residents also feel threatened by the Kurds since they remember all too well when the Peshmerga took over in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion, sparking a wave of looting that stripped the city clean.
Shi‘ite militia members similarly remember when they clashed with the Kurds in the central Iraqi town of Tuz Khurma as recently as April and are leery of coming into contact with them as well.
So everyone is leery of everyone else, which means that the more such forces converge on Mosul, the greater the risk that years of accumulated fears and hatreds will reach a critical mass and explode.
Erdogan is meanwhile refusing to abandon a military beachhead that he maintains in the small town of Bashiqa a few miles to the northeast, while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is threatening that Turkey will be “dismantled” if it tries to mount a full-scale invasion.
“We do not want war with Turkey,” Abadi said, “and we do not want a confrontation with Turkey. But if a confrontation happens, we are ready for it. We will consider [Turkey] an enemy and we will deal with it as an enemy.”
Turkey’s reply has been to continue massing troops, tanks, and other military hardware on the Iraqi border just 90 miles to the north. On Wednesday, it piled on yet more abuse as Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu demanded of Abadi, “If you have the strength, why did you surrender Mosul to terror organizations?”
But as dangerous as all this is, the situation some 280 miles to the west around Raqqa in Syria is even worse. As the U.S. tries to assemble a force capable of taking on ISIS, it finds itself picking its way through a list of contenders that is little short of dizzying.
In addition to Syria, Russia and Turkey, the list includes the so-called Free Syrian Army; Kurdish People’s Protection Units known as the YPG; Sunni Arabs who have joined with the YPG in an umbrella federation known as the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF; plus the same Iranian-backed Shi‘ite militias in Iraq that have lately begun threatening to cross the border and join in the assault on Raqqa as well.
Also dizzying are the local animosities. While Turkey gets along well with Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq, the story is very different in northern Syria, where the left-leaning YPG is dominant. Since the YPG’s parent body, the Kurdish Democratic Union, is allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been leading an insurgency inside Turkey since the 1980s, Erdogan sees the militia as no better than Islamic State and possibly even worse.
The YPG feels the same way, describing Erdogan and ISIS as nothing less than brothers under the skin. The YPG is hostile to the Free Syrian Army since it took part in last summer’s Turkish incursion into northern Syria, whose primary goal was to prevent Kurdish militia units in northeastern Syria from hooking up with fellow YPG fighters in the northwest. The FSA, meanwhile, is not only anti-YPG but anti-U.S. even though its Turkish sponsors are nominally pro.
Thus, Free Syrian Army members erupted in anti-American chanting when a convoy of U.S. commandoes showed up in the Turkish-occupied town of Al-Rai in mid-September, forcing the Americans to flee.
“Christians and Americans have no place among us,” one militant shouted. “They want to wage a crusader war to occupy Syria.” Another called out: “The collaborators of America are dogs and pigs. They wage a crusader war against Syria and Islam.”
This is one of the groups that Washington classifies as “secular” and “moderate.” Still, Washington’s hope is that the various factions will put their differences aside long enough to “liberate” Raqqa. The prospect seems unlikely especially since fighting between the Turkish-backed FSA and the YPG seems to be spreading.
Turkey Killing Kurds
On Oct. 20, Turkish jets and artillery pounded YPG-SDF positions northeast of Aleppo, killing as many as 200 fighters. Since then, the two groups – Turkey and the Free Syrian Army on one side, the YPG and anti-Turkish Arabs of the SDF on the other – have been engaged in a struggle for control of ISIS-occupied Al-Bab, 20 miles or so south of the Turkish border and roughly the same distance northeast of Aleppo.
If Turkish-FSA forces take Al-Bab, then Kurdish hopes of linking up their forces in northeastern and northwestern Syria will have been dashed. The FSA would then be in a position to push east to Raqqa, which would mean a clash with both the main body of the YPG and ISIS. Or, as the often perceptive Moon of Alabama website suggests, it could instead wheel about and attempt to relieve its fellow Salafists besieged in Aleppo.
That would mean a head-on collision with Syrian government forces and exposure to Russian jets, a point that a Syrian government helicopter drove home last week by bombing Turkish-FSA forces engaged in combat with the YPG.
Internecine warfare like this can only benefit Islamic State, an undisputed expert at using its opponents’ differences to its own advantage. This is why it was able to put down roots in Syria in the first place – because the U.S. was too busy trying to topple Bashar al-Assad to worry about an Al Qaeda offshoot that Obama famously dismissed as nothing more than “a JV team.”
It’s also why Islamic State was able to establish bases and supply lines in Turkey – because Erdogan was more concerned with fighting Assad and the Kurds to concern himself with what his fellow Sunnis were up to. A northern Syrian and Iraqi landscape torn by infighting is perfect for a hyper-violent Sunni-Salafist group skilled at playing one group off against another.
The White House dimly senses that it has gotten itself into a mess, which is why officials turn vague and inscrutable whenever reporters press for details concerning a reported assault on Raqqa. The problem, as the U.S. officials see it, is that Erdogan remains unalterably opposed to the YPG-SDF even though it is the only ground force capable of fighting Islamic State. Hence, it is impossible to take Raqqa without alienating a fellow member of NATO.
“We do not need terrorist organizations like the PYD-YPG,” Erdogan says he told Obama in an Oct. 26 phone call, referring to the militia and Kurdish Democratic Union. “I said, ‘Come, let’s remove [Islamic State] from Raqqa together. We will sort this out together with you.’ We have the strength.”
The U.S. doubts that Erdogan does have that capability yet is unable to say no. The upshot is talks, negotiations, and growing delays. Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the neocon Institute for the Study of War, grouses that the administration is “stalling” while, on the other side of the debate, foreign-policy “realists” wonder why the administration is rushing ahead with a strategy that it knows won’t work.
In a hard-hitting analysis in the conservative but often skeptical National Interest, Daniel L. Davis, a retired army colonel and Afghan veteran, points out that whereas a national army, well-armed militias, U.S. ground and intelligence forces, and “resupply lines through friendly territory” are all in place in northern Iraq, “none of those things exist” with regard to Raqqa. The political problems, he adds, are even more daunting.
When Kurdish units liberated the ISIS-occupied town of Manbij in August, Davis notes, grateful residents told YPG members, “You are our children, you are our heroes, you are the blood of our hearts.” Yet the YPG’s reward was to be denounced as terrorists by Erdogan and instructed to leave by the U.S.
“What possible assurances could the United States give to the Kurds,” Davis writes, “that upon successful liberation of Raqqa, the Turkish army isn’t going to turn on them? Why would the Turks bomb the Kurdish troops one day and then work with them the next, or allow the Kurds to maintain a presence after liberating Raqqa? There is no recognizable logic in these unsubstantiated hopes.”
Davis is correct. But, then, there is no recognizable logic in the Obama administration’s intervention in Syria in general. Why insist that Assad step down, for example, when the only effect will be to clear a path for Al Qaeda and Islamic State straight through to the presidential palace in Damascus?
Why back a Turkish incursion into northern Syria when the only result is to infuriate Kurds who are the only effective anti-ISIS fighting force that the U.S. has on its side? Why insist that the U.S. wants a democratic solution to the Syrian civil war when the countries backing the anti-Assad forces, i.e. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab oil monarchies, are some of the most undemocratic societies on earth?
None of it makes sense. But since the Israelis, Turks and Saudis all want Assad to go, the Obama administration feels that it has no choice but to comply. How else can it keep a fractious empire together if not by catering to its client states’ whims and desires?
When empires are strong, they can afford to say no. But when they are weak and over-extended, they do as they are told. This is why the U.S. is frozen with regard to Raqqa. It can’t disappoint its allies by calling an assault off, and it can’t push ahead with a plan that doesn’t add up. So it dawdles.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).
To-day the headlines are blaring that the PKK is going to clear Raqqa on its own. Either that story is a plant or somebody Kurdish is under the mistaken impression that Ash Carter is a pal and that the Turks have given up the notion of wiping them out. Both are mistaken. The Kurds are still here because they’re stupid. Somebody smart thinks we are.
This otherwise excellent analysis has a fatal pronlem. YPG. Kurds are not the for e for the good in Syria. They are exploiting US need for a groung force in order to buy US silence. And the deal between the two is — YPG fights ISIS, and ethnically cleanses the area in order to connect two Kurdish enclaves. Manbij residents may have loved the liberators — until they were forced out. Check the population composition — Kurds were a small minority. This happened in each and every place Kurds fought ISIS. Next is Al-Bab — and population is already scared of Kurds, even ghough they are suffering under ISIS. This is ISIS recruitment bonanza — fear of Kurds. We are helping Kurds with propaganda — an all female battalion is getting ready to
“free their land”, Al-Bab. Not oy that iit is not theirs — we are to be treated to a romantic view of female batallion.
This is definitelly the case of Raqqa and many other smler towns of Raqqa governorate. By contrast — all of those places would welcome Turkey to liberate them and to provide security until political setlement is reached. Kurds should just stay witin their areas — and withdraw from Manbij. Neither Turkey nor Syria — or Iraq or Iran — do not want a separate Kurdish state on Turkish-Iraqi border. This would mean US base and permanent trip wire separating Syria, Turkey and Iran. This womd be another Kosovo — or another Israel, dependind.
If Turkey is to liberate Al-Bab and Raqqa, along with other regional townships — population will not be scared — and will support Turkey, not ISIS. Turkey pledged to protect Syria teritorial integrity and would leave after political settlements. This would eliminate US from having any role in post conflict security of Syria. Iraq is same. Kurds not trusted in Sunni Arab areas, FSA abandoned CIA — and are working with Turkey. Few that stayed behind to fight regime
“Why insist that the U.S. wants a democratic solution to the Syrian civil war when the countries backing the anti-Assad forces, i.e. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab oil monarchies, are some of the most undemocratic societies on earth?”
– I think you’re using an outdated dictionary. Democratic = useful to, subservient to, or allied with, the USA. Making Saudi Arabia one of the most democratic democracies on earth. And making an ongoing civil war a democratic solution.
You can add to that Assad was voted into office by the Syrian people, which is what the US pretends it is all about. We have no business being there in a sovereign country.
A case could also be argued, if the “US wants a demographic solution” of purple thumbs the use of the military is the most non-demographic entity in the US, and the military has no expertise in systemizing a political system or resolution. Who voted for neo-con Ash Carter? We didn’t.
The Pentagon is non-demographic by nature, as is the CIA, and the FBI. All of these entities fly in the face of any democratic resolve in the world and it’s time the people in the US wake up to this fact.
The US preaches about democracy and the rule of law (a joke to them), but the US power is not in the hands of any democratic institution that I can perceive. We brag and pretend we are an indispensable nation in the world, but none of our organizations trying to overthrow Assad have anything to do with democracy.
And then throw in the unhinged Clinton as POTUS and this is Sarajevo 1914 all over again. I think we are doomed.
TO DANIEL LAZARE—-AN APPRECIATION
Many thanks for an excellent contribution. I didn’t “get there first”(!!)
but lamely tried to touch only a few of the points Lazare deals
with above in my comment of the past few days. I focused on the rank
illegality of any attack of Raqqah by anyone without the permission of
the Government of Syria and its coalition partners.
This is, of course, blatantly against the very core of international
law (I believe Article 4(2),)
I suggested at that time that Syria might with the same crazy
” logic” (?) invade Mosul complete with airstrikes etc. Clearly
the fact that Mosul is in another country is no obstacle according
My attempt was a sad attempt to accomplish what Daniel
Lazare has done so eloquently above. Caveat: Things change
from day to day.
—-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA
Since Washington’s “moderate” headchoppers are one and the same with ISIS, Al Nusra, Daesh, etc, etc, exactly how is this going to be accomplished? Will Abu Bakr al Bagdaddi receive an email from Obomber telling him that he is now officially a “moderate rebel” rather than a bloodthirsty terrorist? Does he then get more armaments, including tow missiles and manpads and sent marching on Aleppo and Damascus? That would seem to be the most efficient way for Obomber and Killery to accomplish their goals with the least expenditure of American blood and fortune, though the Syrians and Russians will probably not get off so easy. The niceties of international law and national sovereignty be damned, America will have its regime change and will rub Russia’s nose in it, so the rest of the world had better STFU or they will get a piece of the same. That’s everything America stands for now–ruling the world, no matter how many have to be killed.
The writer of this piece didn’t do much homework. He claims ISIS established itself because the US and Turkey were busy with other things. Wrong. Turkey and the US were busy alright funding and supplying arms to anyone who would unseat Assad. There are pictures of John McCain, some call him Obama’s minster of creating war, hobnobbing with known terrorists and one with him in the presence of Al Bagdaddi the headman of ISIS. The only reason the US and Turkey are bombing ISIS is that they got too big for their britches and they want to bring them back into the fold and under control. Thus an open corridor from Iraq into Syria as to fight Assad. War is extremely expensive, and banks must be used. Yet the US who can find and freeze bank accounts of even lowly Russian rock stars can’t seem to find any ISIS accounts. There was a YouTube video where a guy who was in the service working for a contractor was brought up on laughable charges, having an unregistered gun in his safe and unintentionally lying on his rental application for base housing, and sent to jail for sending a memo to his superiors as to why they weren’t trying to find and stop ME terrorist funding. He claims that while in the Club Fed he met a Swiss banker who supplied the US government with a list of 22,000 bank accounts ISIS was using. With no charges or trial, he flew to the US to present his evidence, they threw him in jail. They eventually released him after paying him over a million bucks and he signed a paper to remain silent on the whole affair.
A looming problem for the neocons is just how much longer the generals actually trying to implement this long series of disastrous military campaigns – based on the whims of lunatics haunting the corridors of Washington – are going to be able to stand failure after failure being trumpeted as success. If it isn’t dawing on the generals it must be dawning on the U.S. electorate by now.
There is little doubt in my mind that this is one of the reasons more dazed and confused voters are throwing their lot in with Trump. It takes a hell of lot of crazy to start making Trump look the sanest option, but the longer the race goes on the more warmongering Hillary Clinton is looking like a raving nutjob on the loose. Without so much as the igntion key, she cannot imagine other than seeing herself at the wheel of bus America, as it careers down a mountainside, without any brakes. Should she get actually get into the Oval Office the world has to get prepared to be sent flying off the road at the next sharp bend.
Perhaps James Comey is the first one to have decided he has had enough. If that is the case, we can expect many more to follow, over the coming months, whichever way the election goes. Unfortunately for the U.S, civil unrest maybe finally coming home to the nest to show there is no such thing as exceptional where war is concerned.
I can’t find the article now but a piece in Sputnik news related that Comey, after discovering the new cache of Clinton emails on Weiner’s laptop, was ordered by Loretta Lynch not to apprise Congress of this fact. However, several powerful factions in the FBI, who are investigating multiple Clinton scandals and felt that she was already given a “get out of jail card” this summer by Comey, insisted that he take this info to the congress, arguing that when the case breaks later–which it will–Comey, rather than Lynch, would be blamed for a cover-up. Of course he did not want that, nor did he want to alienate most of the FBI power structure which has reportedly turned against Clinton. Some say it’s an internecine war at this point with State and Justice bucking the intelligence/law enforcement agencies. Where the Pentagon comes down is anyone’s guess (all the generals are not war hawks). Word is that Wall Street (these are all major players in the Deep State) now realises that Clinton is in for a fall, either before the election or after, and is in the process of learning to co-exist with a President Trump. More evidence is also leaking (from Julian Assange and from a British ambassador via Russian sources–so don’t expect to see the evidence in the American media) that Hillary’s hysterical narrative of Russian hacking and interference in the American elections is purely confected. The actual leakers are Washington insiders who are opposed to Hillary, possibly from the intelligence agencies like the NSA. Wish I had to URLs to provide, but I don’t keep files of every posted article like many of the seriously involved readers here do.
Only just discovered this site and I have to say I am really impressed with what I have read so far.
Welcome…it will get even better as the days go forward….
The reason is simple. The strategy is half-baked even by U.S. standards.
Just think of what a mess this would be in the Middle East if the indispensable nation wasn’t providing its exceptional leadership.
Despite Mr. Lazare’s admirable effort to educate me about the goings-on in Syria, I’m afraid they still remain over my head. But I did have two thoughts while reading his essay.
The first is that the Kurds would be absolute fools to trust the neoconservatives. The second focused on this little part which I’ve corrected to reflect how I view the root cause.
I don’t know why Obama feels compelled to dance to the Israeli tune. Maybe they have some photographs of him with an under-aged sheep or something. Maybe he’s a secret convert to the Zionist political philosophy. So despite none of this making sense in terms of rationality, destroying small nations for Israel works very well for Israel. So that’s where to keep the spotlight – on the nasty and thieving and murderous little Zionist welfare queen.
I don’t know why Obama feels compelled to dance to the Israeli tune.
Same as most of the other politicians in Washington, Zachary. A bought-and-paid-for puppet of the Israel Lobby – first for campaign finance donations, now he’s panhandling for money to build his presidential library. How much money did the pro-Israel moneybags give him in exchange for that recent $38.5 billion military aid package for Israel? That is going to be one hell of an expensive library.
Quagmire is a word that seems to fit here. The number of actors alone makes it a play that is almost impossible to follow without a good program and who knows if you can trust the author? Why we are there at all seems to be a legitimate question that no one wants to ask. Why are we there? Whose ox is being gored by whom and why does it matter to us enough to risk more American blood and treasure? I cannot tell from this article but the most likely suspect is Israel, a country that seems to be able to force its’ will on our alleged democracy and yet they supposedly don’t get to vote here. Actually, anyone that studies America’s Congress knows that AIPAC is the most effective lobby in Washington and they have spent their money wisely. The Israelies trump the will of the majority in our country over and over and the lobby along with a number of jewish Americans are the movers and shakers that take their orders from the Israelie Embassy. So what’s next? Should we just ask the Ambassador to the U.S. from Israel what’s next? Or would our Congress dare to inform its’ citizens who is driving this mistake that is going to cost so many more lives and billions of our treasure. Someone please tell us.
Thank you Daniel Lazare.
Especially for :
“None of it makes sense. But since the Israelis, Turks and Saudis all want Assad to go, the Obama administration feels that it has no choice but to comply. How else can it keep a fractious empire together if not by catering to its client states’ whims and desires?
When empires are strong, they can afford to say no. But when they are weak and over-extended, they do as they are told. This is why the U.S. is frozen with regard to Raqqa. It can’t disappoint its allies by calling an assault off, and it can’t push ahead with a plan that doesn’t add up. So it dawdles.”
Boy does that ring true.
When Colin Powell said “you break it you own it” that statement forebode the insoluble, intractable, entanglements of sectarian violence that continue to kill and punish millions of innocent victims including those people serving in our military.
You make it very clear that there is no military solution.
It’s like a large family at war with itself with shifting alliances and intractable differences. A Shakespearean tragedy where everyone ends up dead.
If we really were “leaders” of the free world like we pretend to be we would stop taking sides whose allegiances seem impossible to fathom. And we would take some responsibility to work like hell to establish a functioning diplomatic round table that invited all willing and interested parties to sit down to work out a cease fire. To set down ground rules that inspired trust. And to seek the seeds of a political settlement where ever that may lead.
The goal would be to protect as well as we could the tragic innocent victims of this chaos.
I have no clue what role control of natural resources play in this. But control of those natural resources does not belong to the imperial powers. Pipelines “are not people my friends”.
The indigenous people don’t deserve what was unleashed on them.
Thanks for teasing out the threads of this chaos for your readers.
Short and sweet. It’s a pipeline war.
“The White House dimly senses that it has gotten itself into a mess.”
Of course, it was the White House’s CIA and Department of State agencies under the GW Bush and Obama Administrations who created that Syrian Civil War in 2011 by deliberately promoting hatreds between Syria’s various ethnic/religious groups in order to “destabilize” the Assad Regime in hopes of creating a violent “regime change” coup de tat (like they did in the Ukraine two years later). America’s morally depraved “neocons” have been promoting such violent “regime changes” in the Middle East since the late 1990s (for their own financial gain). Such enormously bloody efforts are not only morally depraved (a murderous Ho Chi Minh level of immorality, actually), they are also ILLEGAL according US laws and international laws.
The only REALISTIC option the US has at this point is to STOP ACTING LIKE HO CHI MINH and instead work WITH the Assad Regime and Russia to get this whole bloody mess resolved (with the help of UN Peace Keeping forces) as soon as possible!
TOP C. CURRIE:
Of course. The Russians offered such a cooperation once to my
memory and possibly other times (unknown).Secretary of State
John Kerry turned down these invitations because, as he put it,
there must be a “path to peace” which means a “political
transition” which means in translation—a means to oust
the Assad regime.
The US and its CIA should have joined Russia, and the
Assad Regime as you suggest, of course,
—Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA
“(a murderous Ho Chi Minh level of immorality, actually)”,. I am surprised that you vilify Ho Chi Minh, who repeatedly asked the US President for help, who was the only person able to unify Vietnam and who was supported by the majority of the people . US interference rarely takes notice of what the populations actually want.
This is a reply to Christopher Currie.
As early as 1949 Ho Chi Minh wasted his time asking President Truman for help and got nothing.
Ho Chi Minh was a US ally in WW2. After the war a huge chunk of munitions stockpiled on Okinawa and elsewhere was split between Syngman Rhee and Ho Chi Minh. Watching old documentaries of Dien Bien Phu you can see the Viet Minh shelling the French with US made howitzers.
I don’t think anything has changed.
Ho Chi Minh level of imorality? What are you smoking? Ho chi Minh fought and beat an invasion force from the world´s most powerful nation. The only imorality I saw in that war was perpetrated by the USA with it´s illegal bombing of Cambodia and other attrocities like Mai Lai.
I do not understand the reference to Ho Chi Min. The Western media have been demonizing leaders like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Min, Castro, Milosevic etc for a long time. However nothing is being said about Milosevic at present.