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The Raqqa question: why Turkey doesn’t have an answer

Image Credit: Nicolas Mirguet (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Raqqa, the de-facto capital of Islamic State (IS) in Syria, is strategically significant to various interests within the Syrian conflict and the wider international coalition dedicated to fighting terrorism.

Largely ignored by the Syrian regime that has focused their efforts elsewhere its strategic significance to IS is paramount for its operations in Syria, increasingly as their Iraqi strongholds come under attack from a united Iraqi force.

Parallel with Syria, unity is always convoluted, mutual enemies are the foundation of relationships and battlefield alliances are fluid. In Syria debate continues around which force is ideal to retake the IS provincial capital of Raqqa.

The US military estimates the manpower needed to seize and hold Raqqa is somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 military personnel. In a conflict with many actors fighting on many fronts very few groups can muster a force this size or divert this many fighters to one front.

In its desire to diminish domestic Kurdish enthusiasm for independence and to minimize US support for Kurdish elements in Northern Syria, Turkey continues to pressure the US to allow it to participate in the Raqqa offensive. Turkey would use its own rebel elements and Turkish Special Forces to replace the predominantly Kurdish (YPG) – Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which are backed by the US.

This strategic proposition is not realistic. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dedication to fighting IS can easily be seen as a pretext to attack Kurdish forces – It is suspected that Turkish authorities view the YPG through the same lens as IS.

Turkey has had success in setting up an exclusion or ‘buffer’ zone on the Turkish border and retaking the town of Jarabulus from IS.

In the formerly IS-controlled town of al-Bab strong IS resistance has exposed Turkey's limited commitment of military forces and resources, costing the lives of many Turkish-backed rebels, Turkish military personnel and a loss of military equipment to the terrorist organisation.

Al-Bab is a fraction of the size of Raqqa and over a hundred kilometres closer to the Turkish border than Raqqa. Logistically speaking Raqqa is not within easy reach of Turkey.

The recent supply of armoured vehicles from the Trump administration to the SDF demonstrate an unprecedented level of support previously unseen from the Obama administration and provides some gauge of the limitations of Turkish influence on the ground in Syria.

Despite having a close relationship with the European Union and the US, Turkey seeks to extend its influence by developing a stronger relationship with Russia despite their current uneasy relationship. A downed Russian jet, an assassinated Russian ambassador, and an accidental Russian bombing of Turkish forces have not seemed to deter Turkey from this new determination to foster stronger cooperation with Russia. This and Turkey’s protracted campaign in al-Bab reveal a depleted Turkey.

Turkey's long-held stance that Bashar al-Assad must step down, its complicity in allowing the free flow of thousands of foreign fighters across its borders and its general short-sightedness in its Syrian policy were strategic errors that only contributed to domestic terrorist attacks and instability and Turkey has suffered for its mishandling of events.

Turkey’s changing policy towards Assad’s position in a post-civil-war Syria reflects that Turkish security priorities have shifted with the mobilising of its long-supported proxy forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements to attack Kurdish forces as well as IS. Despite this, the Assad regime has stated that Turkey’s incursion into Syria is a breach of sovereignty and that any counter-terrorism operations must be conducted in coordination with the Assad government.

It is impractical and illogical for Turkey to lead its forces and proxy forces down to Raqqa to replace the tens of thousands of Kurdish forces that make up the SDF. The domestic political consequences of the loss of military lives in conflict with a neighbouring country would be dire, to say nothing of the likelihood that Kurdish forces would turn their attention on Turkish forces and backed rebels who have attacked them already.

If Turkey is successful in the campaign to retake Raqqa, Turkish-backed rebels must accept the prominent role Syrian Kurds played in the fight against terrorism and their wider role in Syria, and somehow avoid treating them to exclusion and hostility.

Turkey must stick to its initial plan of creating a buffer zone along its border and protect its sovereignty by removing any immediate threats posed by IS and if necessary the Syrian Kurdish forces.

Turkey’s intrusion into Syria must stop with al-Bab as their any further meddling complicates what already is a geo-political nightmare, compounded by its repeated incidents with Russia and its wishing the US would remove the Syrian YPG to the same terrorist category as IS.

Not quite an EU member and not a Gulf state, an overstretched medium power Turkey should withdraw its Raqqa option as they are continually complicating rather than being the solution to the Raqqa question.

Matthew Wilson is an International Relations Master’s student with a strong interest in security, intelligence and strategy.

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