US-led stabilization in Raqqa has a name: START Forward

Published 10.08.2017 00:40

The Turkish government seems reluctant to contribute, but the U.S. State Department's stabilization program for Syrian province Raqqa is already underway and it has a name: START Forward.

Last week, U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk, de-facto head of the counter-Daesh coalition, told reporters that the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team (START), along with coalition partners and the U.N provide shelter and assistance to 324,000 internally displaced people who have left their home during the war against Daesh.

McGurk said once Raqqa is cleaned of Daesh, START Forward plans to provide food for 447,000 people and shelter up to 50,000 people. Medical treatment facilities for over 200,000 people and water sanitation will be ready by the time Daesh is defeated in the city.

McGurk acknowledged that the coalition has detected 400 critical infrastructure sites in Raqqa, mainly schools and other government buildings that are functional for basic services that need immediate demining.

To finance this effort, the coalition, in line with President Trump's campaign promise not to spend U.S. taxpayer money on state building, has established a Syria Recovery Trust Fund that has received contributions from the partner countries.

Although these are important steps to re-stabilize areas liberated from Daesh, the political dimensions are very complicated. Even though START has been based in Turkey for many years, Ankara continues to block humanitarian organizations from delivering aid across the border.

An American official would not say whether the Turkish government was also blocking the U.S.-led coalition trucks from entering Syria. However, a Turkish official confirmed that as of July, Turkey was preventing U.S. agencies efforts from bringing resources to northeastern Syria.

U.S. initiatives share the same fate. This is why the U.S. and the U.N. continue to deliver supplies through Iraq, specifically the Hasakah province in Syria.

Official sources said McGurk's visit to the Turkish Foreign Ministry to convince Turkish officials in Ankara did not bear fruit.

Ankara seems to opt for this policy to show Washington that its choice to work with the PKK's armed Syrian wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), has serious consequences.

This strategy also weakens the YPG's hold in northern Syria, as one on the ground observer said if the Turkish government had opened the border gates, Kurds would have flocked to Turkey. This mood appears to be evident in areas controlled by the group not only because of the humanitarian conditions, but also the YPG's repressive measures against the political opposition and forced military conscription.

Turkish officials have been closely following how the U.S. will meet its promise to create independent bodies to run cities saved from Daesh. Some American officials raise problematic Manbij Council as a role model for the future governance in Raqqa.

The Raqqa Civilian Council already has a YPG-linked co-chair, Layla Mohammed.

Furthermore, the exact composition of the current council isn't known, and many Washington-based Syria experts said various circulated lists include some names closely aligned with the YPG. The independence of individuals that will run affairs in the city is very important for Turkish officials.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said, "We engage regularly with the government of Turkey on our stabilization planning for Raqqa, including this START Forward program. We are committed to continuing our engagement as we look for additional ways to cooperate with Turkey in post-ISIS [Daesh] Raqqa."

The Trump administration has not decided on the fate of the American civilian and military presence in northeastern Syria in the post-Daesh environment. Some American officials in the administration would like to a long-term partnership with the YPG.

For this pro-YPG clique, stabilization efforts can be a very convenient culprit to provide political supremacy to the already strong YPG.

For example, even Arab recruits for the hold force in Raqqa are undergoing PKK indoctrination; thus becoming part of the YPG's imagined self-administrated region.

The policies and partners of this U.S.-led program will influence future settings in the country. Turkey should make sure that it somehow engages with actors other than the YPG in northeastern Syria for its possible political maneuverings.

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