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US-backed local forces take on 'IS' in Syria with aim to topple self-declared capital

Obama eschews 'shock and awe' warfare for low-key methodical approach that may just be paying off. The strategy has IS on its heels in both Iraq and Syria, but could prove problematic for US ties with Turkey.

IS militants, dressed in black and carrying automatic rifles, march through Raqqa, Syria, their self-proclaimed capital.

IS militants march through Raqqa, Syria, their self-proclaimed capital

Local troops trained by the US launched a military offensive in northern Syria this week, with the dual aim of choking off a key supply route through Turkey and subsequently liberating Raqqa - the self-declared capital for the "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria.

The campaign seems to have surprised all but the most savvy of Middle East, war on terror and/or US military observers. Yet it is actually part of a well established, albeit low-key, approach by the Obama administration to defeat Islamic jihadists in the region without putting US soldiers in the direct line of fire.

During a visit to Germany in late April, President Barack Obama announced that he was increasing the number of US military personnel in Iraq and Syria in an effort win back territory from IS fighters, or 'ISIL' as the president refers to them. Several hundred trainers and special forces were already on the ground in Iraq while in Syria there were just 50.

"I've decided to increase US support for local forces fighting ISIL in Syria," Obama told an audience of dignitaries that included German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "A small number of American Special Operation Forces are already on the ground in Syria, and their expertise has been critical as local forces have driven ISIL out of key areas," he said.

Watch video 01:30

Foreign fighters battle IS in Syria

"So given the success, I have approved the deployment of up to 250 additional US personnel in Syria," he added, "including special forces to keep up this momentum."

Obama's determination to keep US soldiers of the front lines of wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan is the antithesis of the "shock and awe" strategy touted by neo-conservatives and then President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003.

As a result of Obama's low-key approach there is a tendency for people to forget the US is actively engaged in military conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mission creep, or irrelevant

After Obama's announcement in April there were both murmurs of mission creep from the left - that the US was getting sucked into war, again - while conservatives scoffed because the numbers were so small, and nothing seemed to be getting done.

But before the latest offensive, and even before Obama's announced military increase in April, US-backed local forces have been making territorial gains across Syria, according to US Defense Department spokesman Chris Sherwood.

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Joseph Votel made a surprisve visit to Syria in May to show support for US and rebel troops there

"The coalition itself has cleared 22,000 square kilometers of territory, liberated hundreds of villages and freed thousands of people," he told DW in a phone interview.

Backed by US air-power, he declined to say how long it had taken local forces to achieve the aforementioned, saying only, "quite some time."

Perry Cammack, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said "ISIL had a pretty bad year. They lost 40 percent of their territory in Iraq and 15-to-20 percent in Syria."

"IS" is not an especially potent fighting force. Their staying power in Iraq and Syria has much to do with ethnic and political divisions among their opponents.

"The strategic challenges are far more complicated than the tactical," Cammack said. "You could take Raqqa in a couple of weeks or months" with a modest US force.

Watch video 01:41

A sign of hope in Syria

"The biggest problem is political," he continued. "The problem is trying to find reliable Sunni fighters. At the local level there is dysfunction and disunity of the Syrian opposition."

Fighting al-Assad or 'IS'

One fundamental problem is that most Syrians would rather fight the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad, who violently crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 2011, rather than "IS" militants.

As a result, the US has found the most reliable local fighters to be the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). But this has enraged Turkey - a fellow NATO member - which considers the YPG an arm of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK).

The PKK seeks greater autonomy, if not outright independence, for Kurdish minorities across the region, including in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They have used violence to advance their claims over the past 30 years, which has resulted in them being designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the European Union.

But the US distinguishes the YPG from the PKK. Still, sensitive to Turkey's concerns, the US claims the bulk - 80 percent or more - of the Syria Defense Force (SDF) is comprised of Sunni fighters, with the rest being Kurds. The White House also maintains that once the so-called Manbij pocket in northern Syria is liberated the area will be administered by Sunnis, while the Kurdish fighters fall back.

Some question the US claim that Sunnis are doing most of the fighting for the SDF, and they are fearful that the Kurds won't retreat once the fighting ends. Indeed, the strategy, as described by the US, begs the question of what's in this fight for the Kurds?

The answer is unclear and Cammack said this type of conundrum has bedeviled US efforts throughout the Syrian conflict.

"Every victory," he said, "brings its own complications."

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