WASHINGTON, D.C.: A US-backed Kurdish offensive in northern Syria may have dealt a significant blow to the Islamic State, but it also raises concerns among regional allies who fear empowering the Kurds.
The developments highlight a dilemma for the Obama administration as it pursues a strategy to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. is attempting to build a credible threat against the militants without further fueling sectarian tensions.
That has proved difficult in a region where the most successful allies on the ground are sectarian forces, such as Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni militias.
Turkish and Arab leaders have expressed concerns about the Kurdish forces in Syria. Turkey has a sizable Kurdish population within its own borders who have long harbored aspirations to create their own nation.
Arab leaders, meanwhile, have said Kurdish forces pushed Arabs out of their homes in Syrian areas that they have liberated from the Islamic State.
“There’s a lot of objection from the Arab side about enabling the Kurdish militias,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva.
The Kurds continue to rack up successes on the ground. In recent months, their forces have executed a two-pronged attack backed by coalition airstrikes across a wide swath of area that borders Turkey.
The offensive cut off a major supply line stretching from the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa, into Turkey. The militants used the route to bring in foreign fighters, arms and equipment. It also helped the extremists transport black market oil to raise money for their operations.
It is not clear whether the Kurds and their rebel allies will turn south and head toward Raqqa in Syria, which would mean venturing into non-Kurdish territory. The Kurdish forces are now less than 50 miles from Raqqa, but they are most effective operating within their own territory.
The Kurds aren’t likely to push farther south without joining a broader coalition of other rebel groups in Syria, said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
The US-led coalition has been supporting the offensive with airstrikes, which also carry political risks. The US has to be careful not to be seen as favoring Kurds for fear of alienating other groups in Syria, Cafarella said.
“Perceptions on the ground are incredibly important,” she said.
In Iraq, the Obama administration’s strategy faces similar challenges. The approach there is centered on supporting Iraq’s central government. But Iraq’s military has struggled in the face of attacks by Islamic State militants, and Kurdish and Shiite forces have proved more effective than government troops on the battlefield.
The White House has come under increasing pressure to fund Sunni tribes and Kurds directly, which supporters say more accurately reflects the reality on the ground in Iraq. House Republicans backed a provision in the budget bill calling for the direct funding of Sunni and Kurdish forces.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the current policy is designed to strengthen the central government and make it more inclusive.
“Our current plan contributes to an outcome in which Iraq will be able to achieve a government that represents all sects of Iraqi people,” Dempsey wrote Wednesday in a Facebook town hall meeting.
“If that assumption does not prove to be true, then we will adapt, with the cooperation of our coalition and network of ground partners, to protect our security interests,” he added.