Recent comments by US officials involved in planning Syrian policy reveal a picture in which the US is trying to please too many actors involved in eastern Syria, while attempting to do too many things at once.
What began as a war against ISIS has now matured into an attempt to leverage the US presence in eastern Syria to get Iran to leave the rest of Syria. At the same time, Washington wants to “stabilize” areas formerly ruled by Islamic State so that the extremists won’t come back. Meanwhile Turkey, the Syrian regime, Iran, Russia and others are all looking to take advantage of an over-stretched American policy and pounce on it to cause the house of cards in eastern Syria to come crashing down.
The problem the US faces is that it is trying to do too many things at once and it has misled most of its allies and partners by speaking out of two sides of its mouth. This is partly because the Pentagon, the US State Department and the White House are all pursuing different agendas. These can be broken down roughly into a pro-Turkish agenda, an anti-ISIS agenda and an anti-Iran agenda.
Why they are pursuing different agendas is largely a result of the way the war on ISIS developed. When this began, the US had an agenda to support the opposition to the regime of Bashar Assad during the Arab Spring in 2011. Then ISIS emerged and the Pentagon began Operation Inherent Resolve to defeat ISIS in 2014. This led directly to a partnership with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in eastern Syria, the main force fighting ISIS. Two agendas emerged, one to remove Assad and another to defeat ISIS. They were not the same agenda because defeating ISIS could foresee them handing the areas liberated from ISIS back to the Syrian regime. The US doesn’t want that, but under the Obama and Trump administrations, opposition to Assad has changed to opposition to the Iranian presence in Syria.
US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey, recently said that the US wants to remain in eastern Syria and limit Iran’s expansion. He wanted to assure Turkey that its concerns about the US working with the PYD, which he termed “the Syrian branch of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party]” was understandably problematic. He called it “bad news” that the US was working with this “platform” in eastern Syria. This had initially been a “tactical, temporary and transactional” partnership to fight ISIS. But the US was changing its mission and Turkey was worried it was changing its commitments. The “reason the US works with the PYD since 2014, up until very recently is with the understand that the US and Turkey and PYD were involved in specific fight against ISIS,” he said. That fight against ISIS is now “almost finished.” With the war against ISIS, a unifying distraction, supposedly coming to the end, the juggling of agendas in eastern Syria is at risk.
Iran and the Syrian regime are now maneuvering with their Russian ally to pressure the US regarding its presence in eastern Syria. Reports claiming a US air strike killed civilians over the weekend is part of an information war to portray the US as involved in killing civilians. Russia has critiqued the US role in Raqqa, portraying the city as a disaster air lacking reconstruction and a breeding ground for extremism. In short, the US is being accused of mismanaging areas it helped liberate from ISIS.
Meanwhile, Turkey wants to stir controversy in the mostly Sunni Arab areas in northern Syria and in Manbij. This involves Syrian refugees who fled demanding Turkey help them return, which happens to dovetail with Turkey wanting to remove the YPG from Manbij and Tel Abyad and other areas. Turkey has an interest in showing that the US also can’t control these areas and bring stability.
Yet Washington is still trying to balance things as best it can, hoping to assuage Turkey’s concerns, while encouraging the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include the YPG, to keep fighting ISIS. The following are seven problems the US faces in eastern Syria.
1. A partnership with the YPG-SDF against ISIS. Formed in 2014-2015 out of the blue, the US found a force that was effective against ISIS and poured special forces and resources into helping them. Along the way the US didn’t think that the people it is working with are people who don’t just want to fight and die for the US to defeat ISIS, but also think their sacrifices should result in something. The PYD and all its various allies in eastern Syria have political desires to create a utopian left-leaning region in eastern Syria, an agenda the US has no interest in.
2. A US alliance with Turkey. The NATO ally is the historic US ally and the US State Department, army and other parts of the government have long experience working with Turkey. No matter that Turkey’s government has drifted away from the US toward Russia and Iran in recent years, or that there are verbal spats, the US views this as the key alliance, no matter what happens. Because it is such a deep historic Cold War alliance, it won’t go anywhere. The US assured Turkey that its work with the YPG was “tactical” and specific only to the ISIS war, while Turkey claimed the YPG is the PKK in Syria. Turkey played a problematic role regarding some of the extremist foreigners that streamed into Syria in 2012-2014 before sealing the border. The US worked with the Syrian rebels in Turkey before ending support for them. As such the US provided mixed messages to Ankara and Ankara provided mixed messages to the US, increasingly complicating US-Turkey relations.
3. A US attempt at “stabilization” in Raqqa and the Euphrates valley. Seeking to work more with the SDF, Sunni tribes and with Saudi Arabia as an investor, the US sees its future in Syria as devoted to “stabilizing” former ISIS-held mostly-Sunni Arab areas. As such it wants to pivot from the PYD-YPG relationship to this area where it works with the SDF, to invest in this area while downplaying its work with “Kurds.” The idea is to placate Arab tribes to show them that the US is a reliable partner. This will include investment in reconstruction and clearing mines.
4. Removing Iran. The US wants to use eastern Syria as leverage to remove Iran from Syria, including proxies and Iran-commanded forces. This is a new policy developed in 2018. It expects that it can do this without anyone asking too many questions about the authorization for US force in Syria or the desires of the YPG and others, which don’t necessarily care about Iran’s presence or want to be used as tools against Iran.
5. Manbij and Tel Abyad. The US wants to work with joint military patrols with Turkey
that began in November while it tries to balance Ankara’s interest in moving into Manbij and Tel Abyad, and Ankara’s interest in clearing the YPG from the border. As such Washington tries to feed Ankara some “prizes” such as a new bounty on PKK leaders, while playing at joint patrols and trying to warn Turkey from shelling the YPG.
6. Balancing the war on ISIS with Turkey’s agenda. Every time Turkey pressures the YPG, such as Turkish forces taking over the mostly Kurdish area of Afrin in January or shelling in Tel Abyad in October to November, the conflict with ISIS stops because the SDF and YPG refuse to fight and die against ISIS if they are being attack by the US ally Ankara somewhere else.
7. Two different stories for different allies. The US wants to tell Ankara one story, and tell the YPG another story. It thinks that somehow a “mysterious” and “complex” role in Syria can be papered over with constantly changing narratives, including telling the Pentagon to fight ISIS while the White House wants to pressure Iran and the State Department wants to cultivate Turkey again. This appears to be three parts of the government doing three different things.
One of the central problems is that the US has tended to treat its Kurdish allies as if they are just allies of convenience. But they read US statements and know that the US may one day walk away from eastern Syria, or pivot back to Turkey. This leads to concerns that the US role is temporary or even fickle. Turkey also views the US as playing a duplicitous role.
For US adversaries, especially Iran but also Russia, Washington’s different agendas present an opportunity to divide the US from its partners and allies and destabilize eastern Syria. Iran and Russia also think the US presence will eventually end if they just wait long enough or continue to pressure the US along the Euphrates valley or in northern Syria by working with Turkey. This is how the US was outplayed in 2013 when it became clear Washington was not serious about confronting Assad. Every time the US lacks clarity in its mission and different parts of the government have differing agendas, US adversaries are able to prevail.
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