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Road to Raqqa a tricky path for US-Turkey cooperation

ANKARA: Turkish officials have recently been in close contact with their US counterparts, and a possible joint military operation in the Daesh stronghold of Raqqa is on the table.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Feb. 12 that the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) would collaborate to liberate Daesh-held Raqqa, along with Manbij, which is held by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

“Al-Bab is not our final target. So far, we have neutralized over 3,000 Daesh terrorists. The main center of Daesh is not Al-Bab, but Raqqa. The ultimate goal is to cleanse a 5,000-square-km area,” Erdogan said at the time. But there are still major disagreements over the US partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mainly composed of Kurdish militia, which are seen by Turkey as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terrorist organization, and a threat to national security.

Ankara therefore rejects joining a coalition to liberate Raqqa that also includes the SDF. As Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said during a trip to Germany: “One terrorist organization cannot be used to fight another.”

Cooperation plans

Turkish daily Hurriyet, citing security sources, reported that Ankara has two plans in how to cooperate with the US. One is to work with US special forces, with the support of Turkey-backed moderate fighters, and enter Syria through Kurdish-held Tal Abyad before pushing south toward Raqqa, which would require the green light from Kurdish elements.

The other option, seen as less likely because of the inhospitable topography and the longer route, is to push on to Raqqa through the Syrian town of Al-Bab, where Turkey has been fighting with Daesh for the last two months.

There are two key options in the drive to liberate the Daesh-held city — and neither is perfect.

Menekse Tokyay

Turkish forces would only provide tactical support on the ground, meaning aerial, tank, artillery, planning and intelligence support, without direct involvement in the combat.

Metin Gurcan, an ex-military officer and security analyst at the Istanbul Policy Center, said a potential Raqqa operation would involve a very complicated web of relations compared to the Mosul operation. That is because of the presence of many global and local actors, which heightens the risk of clashes. 

According to Gurcan, the US particularly needs Turkey’s presence in the Raqqa operation for symbolic and demographic reasons.

“It is of key importance to have Sunni elements on the ground for ensuring the legitimacy of the operation,” Gurcan told Arab News.

“Raqqa is almost totally composed of Sunni Arabs. So any US operation in that city should win hearts and minds of Sunni Arab tribes. At this point, Turkey is strongly needed to convince those segments,” he added. 

Oytun Orhan, a researcher focusing on Syria at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, said Turkey’s proposal to the US includes forming a broad military coalition composed of about 10,000 troops and excluding Kurdish militia.

Orhan told Arab News that the likelihood of the Turkish Army advancing east after Al-Bab is very low as such a move could lead to clashes with the Syrian regime, Iran-backed militias or accidental targeting of Turkish troops by Russia, as has been seen in the past.

“The Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias are already advancing from the south of Al-Bab to cut the Euphrates Shield’s possible advance east,” he said. 

Orhan also said that a Turkish incursion into Raqqa through the Turkish border town of Akcakale would also be risky as it would almost certainly lead to clashes with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, and Turkish forces would need to go through a 20 km-long insecure corridor.

Orhan suggested that the US would try to find a solution that will satisfy Turkey without leaving the YPG out in the cold. Such a plan could involve giving the YPG a role in the liberation of Raqqa, but with the guarantee that it will not stay in the city, leaving Arab parties to administer it.

Experts also underline a significant risk of Daesh and PKK-related terror attacks in Turkey following the country’s direct involvement in any Raqqa operation.

Raqqa is the stronghold of Daesh, where the majority of its foreign fighters are located. If Daesh becomes trapped in Raqqa, it may try to retaliate against the closest targets through attacks such as the mass shooting in Istanbul’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve,” Orhan noted. Another risk, according to Orhan, is that if Turkey gives approval to the Akcakale option, the PKK may retaliate with terror attacks.