For the Coalition, the SDF’s liberation of ISIS’ capital Raqqah in October 2017 was a significant turning point in the conflict. The SDF, which is composed of local Sunni Arabs and Kurds, has been a valuable partner in the fight against ISIS, and they sacrificed greatly to liberate large portions of their country.
Simultaneous operations by the SDF in Syria and the ISF and PMF in Iraq effectively isolated ISIS remnants in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) and along the Syrian side of the Iraq-Syria border where both forces are currently conducting operations to kill or capture all remaining ISIS fighters.
Pro -Regime Forces (PRF) and Russia also continue to operate in the MERV as they isolate ISIS fighters south of the Euphrates River, though Assad’s decision to prematurely withdraw his forces has likely given valuable breathing room to ISIS on the western side of the river. With PRF operating in close proximity to Coalition-backed forces in the MERV, de-confliction measures are vital, and we have worked closely with Russia to prevent accidental strikes and to ensure the safety of the various forces on an increasingly complex battlefield.
The Coalition does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro – regime forces partnered with them. While the deconfliction efforts have been largely effective, the Coalition recently demonstrated its commitment to defend U.S. and partner forces operating in Syria by striking PRF that conducted an unprovoked attack on SDF and Coalition forces. And we will continue to do so, as necessary.
Though our partnership with the SDF is critical to defeating ISIS in Syria, it has created challenges with our NATO ally Turkey, who views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) elements within the SDF as analogous to the PKK terrorist group. U.S. Special Operations forces have been working with vetted elements of the SDF for several years to defeat ISIS. Our assistance to the SDF has been focused on this goal, and we have included safeguards and transparency measures to ensure it does not physically threaten Turkey. In January, Turkey began air strikes and ground incursions into the
predominantly Kurdish enclave of Afrin, where CENTCOM has no presence or direct relationships in northwest Syria, in an attempt to, according to the Government of Turkey, “remove the terrorist threat from its border.” Though we have no relationship with YPG fighters in Afrin, who previously cooperated with Russia and the regime, these operations directly impact our ability to affect a lasting defeat against ISIS through the SDF. Many fighters in the SDF have familial ties to the Kurds in Afrin, and they are now forced to choose between completing operations against ISIS fighters in the MERV and assisting their fellow Kurds in northern Syria. Our alliance with Turkey is paramount,
and we will continue to assist the Turkish military in countering the PKK and other VEOs that threaten their border, but we must continue to urge restraint as their actions have clearly increased risk to our campaign to defeat ISIS .
Amidst the visible damage caused by the Syrian civil war, the country has also witnessed a far less-publicized change: democratic organizations in the form of local civil councils have assembled in places previously controlled by ISIS. These councils are providing the necessary basic functions of governance and starting to rebuild their war – torn communities. These ad-hoc democratic organizations come in various forms and engage in a range of activities from providing the most basic services to rallying the population against the re-emergence of VEOs. For example, in the cities of Manbij and Raqqah, local councils ran civic campaigns against ISIS in concert with more moderate rebel groups, providing a two – pronged strategy that ultimately prevented ISIS from regaining a foothold in these areas.
In other parts of Syria, councils have developed a more sophisticated capacity and are building roads, repairing sewage lines, and holding local elections. As Secretary of State Tillerson has said , “Interim local political arrangements that give voice to all groups and ethnicities supportive of Syria’s broader political transition must emerge with international support.” Any interim arrangements must be truly representative and must not threaten any of Syria’s neighboring states. Similarly, the voices of Syrians from these regions must be heard in Geneva and in the broader discussion about Syria’s future.” The key to the success of these groups is their ability to maintain legitimacy among the populace.
Although these local councils have made great strides, they can only provide aid and assistance to the population at the pace at which they receive it. As we enable local solutions to local problems, supporting these local councils with our full range of Department of Defense, interagency, and Coalition capabilities will help them maintain popular support and set conditions for enduring, stable governance.
A significant challenge we face as we complete the defeat of ISIS is the repatriation of hundreds of foreign fighters to their home countries. The SDF and ISF are both holding several hundred fighters from a number of different countries in prisons or temporary detention facilities, with no clear process for prosecution or repatriation. The longer these fighters remain in detention together, the greater danger they pose as they form new connections, share lessons learned, and prepare to re-establish networks upon their release or escape. This urgent problem requires a concerted international effort
involving law enforcement, intelligence sharing, and diplomatic agreements.