The Corner

Another Day, Another Story of American Challenges in Syria

American planners are hoping to take aim at Raqqa, ISIS’s informal capital, but we’re having trouble finding a ground force that is either capable or — more importantly — willing to advance on the city:

In this abandoned desert town on the front line of the war against the Islamic State in Raqqa, local fighters are fired up by announcements in Washington that the militants’ self-proclaimed capital is to be the next focus of the war.

But there is still no sign of the help the United States has delivered ostensibly for the use of the Arab groups fighting the Islamic State, nor is there any indication it will imminently arrive, calling into question whether there can be an offensive to capture Raqqa anytime soon.

Fifty tons of ammunition air­dropped by the U.S. military last week and intended for Arab groups has instead been claimed by the overall command of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which is fighting alongside Arab units but overwhelmingly dominates their uneasy alliance, according to Kurdish and Arab commanders.

I’m glad to hear that the ammunition drop has been claimed by our proven allies, the Kurds. They’ve been by far the most effective anti-ISIS fighting force in Syria, but they have little desire to advance far beyond the borders of their homeland. As the Post reports:

The dispute surrounding the destination of this first supply of U.S. arms under the new Pentagon strategy is just one of several latent tensions over the future shape of the battle in northeastern Syria, where the Kurdish YPG has proclaimed a self-governing Kurdish enclave called Rojava.

Among them is the question of whether Raqqa should be a target at all, in a fight seen by Kurds as predominantly aimed at consolidating their control over Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria that were historically discriminated against during four decades of Assad family rule and now have fallen under Kurdish rule.

The Kurds are right: advancing much beyond their current territorial boundaries could trigger an immediate backlash:

Much in the way that Iraq’s reliance on Kurdish and Shiite fighters has alienated Sunnis there, Kurdish gains in Syria risk driving support for the Islamic State, said Hamid, of the Brookings Institution.

“This is exactly what ISIS wants. They want to be perceived as the last line of defense for Sunnis in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “The extent to which we contribute to that narrative becomes really problematic.”

To be clear, I have deep sympathy for those tasked with developing an American strategy for defeating ISIS under current administration constraints. Aside from the Kurds, we have unreliable or unproven allies, the administration has dramatically limited American striking power from the air, and — aside from isolated special forces raids — the administration is prohibiting direct American ground combat. With those limitations, winning a war is challenging indeed.

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