Obama’s last Victory: Syrian Democratic Forces hold Parts of ISIL Capital

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
– T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Whatever the fate of the world, Eliot’s verse is appropriate to the phony “caliphate” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIL (ISIS, Daesh). Its last days as a territorial mini-state will play out through 2017, but even dramatic developments appear not to be generating much public interest.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Saturday morning that they had established control over a northwestern neighborhood of Raqqa in Syria, the capital of Daesh. They also launched an attack on a military base north of the city.

There are reports that Daesh fighters in Raqqa are attempting to negotiate their departure from the city.

The SDF is mostly made up of the leftist Kurds of the YPG (People’s Protection Units). To it are attached a few northern Syrian Arab clans, though the number of Arabs in the SDF is likely greatly exaggerated. Rebranding the YPG as the SDF and trying to make it multi-cultural was the strategy of Barack Obama and his secretary of defense, Ash Carter. They embedded a few hundred US special operations troops with the YPG and began training and equipping them for an eventual assault on Raqqa. The leftist Kurds were happy to take on this task in alliance with the US because Daesh had been trying to take their territory and massacre them, as they had done to the Iraqi Kurds. As leftist Kurds they are the ideological opposite of the hyper-fundamentalist, largely Arab Daesh.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis studied the Obama/ Ash Carter strategy intensively. Likely Mattis got enormous pressure from Trump’s first National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, to drop the Kurds. (Flynn was secretly working for a billionaire close to Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan and appears to have been in Ankara’s back pocket; and Ankara does not like Washington’s Kurdish strategy toward Daesh one little bit.). Still, in the end, Mattis decided to go forward with the strategy of his predecessors, with some minor tweaks, He increased the number of US Special Operations troops embedded with the Kurds somewhat, and he supplied the YPG with medium weaponry, over squawks from Turkey. And his Pentagon redoubled regional propaganda exaggerating the number of Arab tribal levies fighting alongside the Kurds in the “Syrian Democratic Forces.”

And now the SDF is bracing the “caliphate” in its own lair. That a key neighborhood of Raqqa has fallen is huge news. It is the second to be taken by the SDF, the first having been al-Sabahiya.

It is true that the Syrian province of Deir al-Zor remains to be taken even if Raqqa province falls. And that Daesh may hang on for a few more months in West Mosul. But given Daesh’s designation of Raqqa as a capital and given the fixation on north Syria as the site of a future apocalyptic battle (which it will now never be in a position to join), the morale implications of the Raqqa defeat for the minions of Daesh are enormous.

The SDF said that they had liberated the western neighborhood of al-Rumaniya in Raqqa after two days of fierce battles. Raqqa has been surrounded by the SDF for some time, but this is the first time the Kurds have announced the capture of a western neighborhood there.

The northern approaches of the city (most Kurdish YPG forces are north of Raqqa) are guarded by the “Division 17” army base, which was captured by Daesh in 2014. The Kurdish fighters are finding the assault on it slow going.

The SDF began its campaign in Raqqa province last November, gradually moving south and cutting off major supply routes to the Daesh capital.

The American public was so consumed in 2014 with Daesh and its sanguinary spectacles that it did an about-face and wanted then President Barack Obama to intervene in Iraq, despite their support for him in 2008 and 2012 having been premised in part on his opposition to . . . intervening in Iraq.

When Daesh took much of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq in 2013-2014, it presented to then President Barack Obama perhaps his gravest foreign policy crisis. Despite how badly he wanted not to be bogged down in Middle East policy, he swung into action. He forced pugnacious Shiite nationalist Nouri al-Maliki out of office in Baghdad and helped usher in the more flexible Haydar al-Abadi. He rebuilt the Iraqi command in a bid to train up yet another Iraqi army to replace the one that collapsed and ran away from Daesh in June of 2014. He tacitly accepted the help of Iran and of pro-Iranian Shiite militias in the fight against Daesh in the meantime.

On the Syria side, he was rebuffed in his search for a regional land force that would take on Daesh in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, where it was ensconced. Turkey was much more interested in taking on the PKK Kurds. The Gulf Cooperation Council nations offered their air forces to do some bombing in northern Iraq, but I don’t think they ever helped out against Raqqa in Syria.

It is Obama’s policy toward Daesh that is now finally bearing fruit. That policy may have been slower than desirable (certainly for the sake of Paris and Brussels). But it was eminently practical, and is now finally being implemented.

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Related video:

DW US-backed militias push into IS-held Raqqa | DW English

19 Responses

  1. “It is Obama’s policy toward Daesh that is now finally bearing fruit. That policy may have been slower than desirable (certainly for the sake of Paris and Brussels). But it was eminently practical, and is now finally being implemented.”

    There is an element of partisan triumphalism here. Daesh, Nusrah Front, Jaysh al Islam, and similar terrorist groups have inflicted a great deal of harm to Syrians and Iraqis. While it is true that Obama’s support of the SDP helped end Daesh’s phony caliphate, it wasn’t the only cause of their demise. As you note, the SDP worked in coordination with other groups that were fighting against Daesh. Is Obama’s support pivotal in stopping Daesh? Likely… Yet, it is not the sole cause as it is presented in this post.

    Obama’s support of Saudi and Turkish foreign policy in Syria enabled extremist groups to overrun entire sections of Syria and Iraq. These two countries, Syria and Iraq, will take a long time to recover from all the carnage that they have faced and will continue to face. If one is going to give Obama credit for supporting the SDP, then one has to simultaneously acknowledge the US support that was given to extremist groups that have inflicted an egregious amount of harm to Syrians and Iraqis.

    “That policy may have been slower than desirable (certainly for the sake of Paris and Brussels).”

    Umm… Yes, Paris and Brussels have suffered tremendously. Syrians and Iraqis have too. They too do not want Daesh and like-minded terrorist groups to carry out terrorist actions against them. Like Parisians and Belgians, Iraqis and Syrians would also like to just get on with their lives without the threat of terrorism.

    • Mr. Al-Assad, you neglected to mention the hundreds of thousands of Syrians you killed, some after imprisoning and torturing them.

        • @jay a metaphor requires similarity between objects of comparison to be effective. The comparison in a metaphor is obviously not literal, but some semblance of similarity is required. So, my question, unlike your retort, makes sense. Just where in my speech is there any similarity to al-assad? I’ve repeatedly called him a way criminal that needs to be tried.

        • This entire episode is deeply unfortunate. I’ve been called many things in high school, but a war criminal… That’s a first. Wish instead it were the content of my comments that were criticized.

  2. In the last month’s of the Obama administration I went on the record as saying he would be missed as a steady hand and hadn’t been given the full credit he deserved in foreign policy (moderate centre-right leadership, Obamacare and the bail-out having absorbed mot of his domestic political capital). Despite his many flaws, he did grow on me (as a foreign citizen subjected to, but not part of, the American political process) as his two terms progressed.

    The IMO Syria strategy showed Obama had learned something from his failed surge in Afghanistan and his ‘leading from behind’ disaster in Libya. It has worked (for now and assuming that orange haired buffoon in the White House is kept far away from it) and also likely saved Iraq from a budding dictator in the form of Nouri al-Maliki. Sadly the present incumbent does not show any of the same learning potential.

    • Obama administration policy on Syria has been an abysmal and chronic series of failures.

      After Obama took office, in order to avoid the discerning eye of Republican in the U.S. Congress, he made a “recess appointment” of U.S. State Department career Foreign Service officer Robert Ford as U.S. Ambassador to Syria, thus circumventing the congressional confirmation process.

      The problem was that Ford eventually resigned and became a bitter critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy positions relative to Syria – and proclaiming in public that the ISIS problem in Syria was a by-product of the civil war in that country and the Syrian people’s dissatisfaction with Assad fueled the proliferation of ISIS in Syria:

      link to cnn.com

      link to slate.com

      link to middleeasteye.net

      link to ibtimes.com

      President Obama’s legacy in Syria – as to either the Baathist regime in Damascus or the al-Nusra Front and ISIS terror organizations that flourished during his second term – can only be described as a debacle.

      • Obama’s appointment of an ambassador to Syria like everything else he did was going to be blocked by the GOP in a way the constitution did not envisage.

        Obama’s policy was to stay out of Syria proper, a policy that Ford came to disagree with. That isn’t a debacle. Would you like a list of conflicts Republican presidents managed to stay out of? Were those debacles.

        By the way, you voted for Trump, so, you know. Credibility gap.

        • Anyone who supports US intervention in Syria needs to address the question, how is the outcome in Syria a vital national interest of the United States?. Foreign policy is very selfish and a nation’s security interest must be in the forefront. Even if a certain outcome is preferable, we must ask if it is worth the cost. Syria is not a vital national interest of the US and any intervention there by the US that would be significant enough to make a difference would cost more than it is worth. Any other measure is superfluous. Neocons are terribly unrealistic. You would think they would have learned something from Iraq, but most haven’t.

      • Professor Cole is correct. If you actually pulled the lever for Trump evidently you know little of human nature or you were completely ignorant of the man, thus rendering your opinion of just about anything unworthy to consider (at least for me).

  3. And, after this becomes an accomlished fact, watch Trump try to take credit for it.

    There are patterns that have emerged that we need to recognize. Not to get off-topic, but a well organized campaign to launch Naomi Kline’s new book has just been launched. And its good its being handled so competently. Her piece on The Intercept is particularly direct and pointed about what we need to expect and be prepared for on the home front.

    This business in Syria is interesting and important, but the battle that promises to unfold here, more so.

  4. So any bets that if and when this comes to a more successful conclusion, that Trump will claim it was all his doing? He has a bad habit of latching on to Obama’s successes, because his first 5 months have yielded only investigations, lies, Russian connections, nepotism, and no bills passed to brag about.

  5. Obama was by no means a perfect leader, but in comparison to the clown now in office, he was a genius at building strategic coalitions. We will miss him badly in the coming years.

  6. The Kurds will be thrown under the bus again, when will they ever learn? State Dept Jonathan Cohen: Kurdish lives & sacrifices are only good when fighting the jihadists. After it we will leave them to the wolves. link to twitter.com

  7. Please speak to the probability that the US will use its alliance with Kurds to support carving away Syrian territory to hand to a US and fossil fuel corporation compliant regime. Is there not evidence in the fact that US is attacking Syrian government and allied troops that are also heading to retake Raqqa? US policy to overthrow Assad to be replaced with a government friendly to the US elites has so far failed and isn’t the consolation prize a friendly Kurdish corridor in the north that will no doubt house US military bases?

  8. I remember blurbs about ME socialism, specifically the kurds, in the news media during the Bush gulf wars. I had wondered for years why we didnt support more modern ideals in the ME. Well it takes alot of time to learn about my govs support of fundy islam in exchange for petro. So I was actually thrilled when Obama first started to support the YPG in Kobani. Obama was the change I voted for. Turkey, as a NATO ally, turned away from our shared values. It treated the kurds like the IDF treats the occupied territories. There is a consistancy there. Obama made distance between Erdogen and Netanyahu for the right reasons.
    Without that strong left influence to see other allies in the ME besides religious wackos we would have just armed some other non-Isis isis.

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