U.S. Shifts Course in Syria: Ar-Raqqa and the new Syrian Arab Coalition

Last week the U.S. government announced that it was making a major shift in its strategy to support the anti-ISIS rebel forces in Syria. After a string of embarrassing failures in the $500 million train-and-equip program, President Obama finally acknowledged the program’s underlying miscalculation: asking fighters to focus only on ISIS is unrealistic when the Assad regime is the primary aggressor in Syria.

While the death toll in Syria varies based on who you ask (the UN stopped counting in January 2014, leaving a handful of Syrian human rights reporting organizations with ground networks to fill the void), all of the groups that still attempt to track casualties show that the Syrian government is responsible for the majority of those casualties, with estimates varying from 70%-90% of the total in any given period. This is reinforced by data from a new poll of Syrian refugees in Europe, which shows that a striking majority of respondents fled from violence perpetrated by the Syrian government and its allied forces (arrest, barrel bombs, shelling, etc.), and blamed the Syrian authorities and their international backers for the current situation in Syria. In light of this reality where the threat of Assad looms far larger for Syrians than that of ISIS, the administration’s train-and-equip program – which forced participants to focus only on ISIS and ignore the Syrian military – appeared to be an empty gesture, the “political checking of a box,” as some analysts have noted.

Stock photo of C-17 Globemaster airdrop training. Credit: US Air Force

Stock photo of C-17 Globemaster airdrop training. Credit: US Air Force

On Friday, October 9, the Pentagon announced that it was changing course, providing equipment and weapons to existing vetted ground forces in the Syrian opposition instead of training a new force from scratch. The Pentagon’s statement did not specify exactly who would be receiving this military aid, but the question was answered over the weekend when the U.S. began dropping weapons and ammunition to the “Syrian Arab Coalition;” a small, newly-minted alliance of rebel groups that have fought alongside the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria. Our sources indicate that there have been two drops in the past three days: one near Tel Abiyad, and the other near Ain Issa. Both towns are in northern ar-Raqqa province. U.S. weapons drops in these locations support rumors of an upcoming offensive against ar-Raqqa city, which has been ISIS’s de facto “caliphate” capital in since it took the city from other rebel forces last year.

Ain Issa is perilously close to the frontline of fighting with ISIS, making a weapons drop near the town inherently risky for the U.S. This may explain why a U.S. government official told CNN that the airdrop was actually made in neighboring Hasakah province where there would be less risk of ISIS intercepting the supplies. The unnamed official was careful to note that: “all pallets successfully were recovered by friendly forces.” It is not surprising that the U.S. government would be particularly sensitive to this concern, since last month when a participant in the now “paused” train-and-equip program surrendered some U.S.-supplied equipment to al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

The abrupt shift in U.S. strategy is being driven by the onset of Russian airstrikes in Syria, which have accelerated the pace of developments on the ground and increased international tensions. Despite a Russian disinformation campaign that they are targeting ISIS in Syria, they have actually been striking populated areas and rebel forces that threaten the Assad regime’s strongholds. Many of the opposition groups targeted by Russia have actually served as a frontline bulwark against ISIS advances in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. As a result of the Russian campaign, ISIS has been able to make new territorial gains in northern Syria. In addition to causing further deterioration of the situation on the ground, Russia has also been testing the limits of Turkey and the U.S.-led Coalition, with multiple reports of Russian fighter aircraft crossing into Turkish airspace and intercepting U.S. predator drones.

It is not yet clear how the new U.S. strategy will impact the situation on the ground:

The speed with which the U.S. has pursued the new strategy since Friday’s announcement stands in stark contrast to the glacial pace of the previous training program. Despite the energy being thrown at this new approach, since the shift appears to be a reaction to very recent events, it is likely that the entire framework of the administration’s new plan has not yet been determined. Criticism of the U.S.’s Syria strategy – including questions as to whether it has a strategy at all – has continued to haunt the administration. A well-armed ground offensive against ISIS strongholds in ar-Raqqa, backed by U.S. Coalition airstrikes, could give the Obama administration a much-needed win. At the same time, the Kurdish YPG and affiliated rebel groups that the U.S. dropped supplies to over the weekend represent only a small fraction of the opposition ground forces in Syria and will not alone be sufficient to make nationwide gains against ISIS. Expanding the “Syrian Arab Coalition” beyond close allies of the YPG will be tricky given the YPG’s spotty relationship with much of the Syrian opposition.

Observers should pay close attention to ar-Raqqa, where the ability of the “Syrian Arab Coalition” forces to turn U.S.-supplied weapons into gains on the ground against ISIS will very likely guide U.S. strategy moving forward. How the U.S. expands this new strategy will be critical in determining its success.