Image via Burak Su/Wikimedia
Two things happened in Syria recently that went under the radar.
First, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claimed to have ousted Islamic State (IS) fighters from the last IS-controlled districts in Tabqa. This is a town 25 miles west of the IS’s de facto capital, Raqqa. According to the Syrian Kurdish Hawar News Agency, IS fighters are now besieged at the Tabqa Dam outside the town.
Meanwhile, IS staged attacks in al-Shaddadi, roughly 125 miles east of Tabqa.
Source: Geopolitical Futures
The US Wants Turkey to Fight
After US President Donald Trump took office, he asked Defense Secretary James Mattis for a plan to defeat IS within 30 days. Mattis presented a preliminary plan in February. So far, though, no details have been released.
We can surmise that Mattis told Trump something along these lines: The US has bigger problems than IS, and the military has been fighting in the Muslim world for 16 years. Equipment needs maintenance. Troops need reinforcements. Weapons need modernization. These changes cannot be made in 30 days.
Besides, the US has a NATO ally in Turkey. The US also shares an interest in defeating IS with Iran. The US cannot be expected to be everything to everyone. Why not let Muslim countries deal with their own problems?
The struggle to defeat IS was a major topic of conversation during Trump’s phone call to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an on his victory in last month’s referendum.
The US wants Turkey to take the lead in destroying IS in Raqqa. Erdo?an has signaled that Turkey would be willing to work with a coalition of US and Russian forces to achieve this goal.
Turkey Wants Concessions from the US
But Erdo?an says that the Syrian Kurds (who make up the majority of SDF fighters) must be excluded. Thus far, the US has not given in. The US pointed out that the SDF is bearing the brunt of the fight with IS.
Erdo?an will visit the US in two weeks. The disconnect between US and Turkish interests will be a hot topic when he and Trump meet.
Trump praised Kurdish fighters while he was on the campaign trail. But now he will face the same conundrum President Barack Obama encountered.
The US does not want to abandon the SDF. But the US needs Turkey’s help to root out IS from Raqqa. And Turkey is using that to try to get the US to align with Turkish concerns about the Kurds.
Erdo?an does not want to go into the heart of the Syrian Desert to fight IS any more than the US does. Turkey has dipped its toes into the fighting in Syria but marching to Raqqa is a great deal more challenging.
Turkey is using its strategic position and the reputation of its military to try to exact concessions from the US and to manage its relationship with Russia. The great powers are playing chess. But only the pawns are in play right now.
IS is biding its time. IS has proved that it thinks strategically, fights tactically, and possess more patience that its enemies. Whether that is due to its religious devotion or the lack of alternatives is best left to psychoanalysts.
What the geopolitical analyst can add is that the Islamic State is still behaving like a force that thinks it can win. As long as the SDF is the only force fighting IS on the ground, that’s not an unreasonable assessment.
Grab George Friedman’s Exclusive eBook, The World Explained in Maps
The World Explained in Maps reveals the panorama of geopolitical landscapes influencing today’s governments and global financial systems. Don’t miss this chance to prepare for the year ahead with the straight facts about every major country’s and region’s current geopolitical climate. You won’t find political rhetoric or media hype here.
The World Explained in Maps is an essential guide for every investor as 2017 takes shape. Get your copy now—free!