The US and the international community face a potential crises in eastern Syria with the thousands of hard core ISIS members who surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces in the first months of 2019. They and their families, numbering tens of thousands from more than 41 countries, are now are a burden on the locals who must house them, and a potential threat to the world.
The US is still trying to scramble to figure out what its ideal goal is in eastern Syria. It initially became intensely involved in fighting Islamic State, eventually engaging in a large mission creep from its original goals and extending the role of the international coalition that gelled between 2014 and 2015. That coalition numbers up to 79 partner, but few of them want a role in eastern Syria. Instead the US has done the heavy lifting, sending supplies and weapons to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the group the US partnered with to defeat ISIS in late March.
The war is over. Time to win the peace. The US used to call this post-ISIS phase “stabilization.” It sought to train up to 40,000 local security forces. But then US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from Syria in December 2018. Urged by leading Senators and the Pentagon to reconsider, he eventually agreed to stay but with a much reduced footprint of only hundreds of troops rather than thousands of troops, diplomats and officials.
“Ad-hockery,” a US military commander told The New Yorker. “Increasingly hard to get a single coherent policy on Syria,” Richard Outzen said, according to a report in Al-Monitor. Ad-hoc and lack of coherence don’t sound like the US has a real policy. Or it sounds like the US has several policies that don’t mesh well together.
This is because the US is in the midst of a large crisis in relations with Turkey. The crisis partly developed because of Turkey’s differing policy views on Syria. Ankara views the SDF as linked to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey launched a series of operations into northern Syria to prevent the SDF from gaining too much ground, filling the vacuum left behind by ISIS with Turkish troops and Syrian rebel allies. In January Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies launched an operation into Kurdish YPG-held Afrin in northwest Syria. This set off alarm bells for the SDF in which they realized that not only was their hold on eastern Syria made tenuous if Turkey sought to launch an operation against them, but that Russia would no longer prevent such an operation if the US were to walk away from eastern Syria after the defeat of ISIS. The US had already hinted it might leave Syria under Trump’s watch.
For the SDF the nightmare became more real in December 2018 when the US said it would leave. Even though Washington reversed that policy, Turkey has demanded a role along the border in northeast Syria. This is a so-called “buffer zone” or “safe zone” that Turkey wants to patrol inside Syria. Turkey also wants to move into Manbij, which has been controlled by the SDF since it was liberated from ISIS in 2016.
The problem now is that the US has painted itself into a corner. Turkey believes it has leverage over Washington. It sought to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system while also saying it wanted the US Patriot missile air defense system. Washington has expressed outrage over Turkey’s apparent move towards a closer alliance with Russia and arms deals with Moscow. But Ankara thinks Washington needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the US to keep the calm in Syria. Turkey maneuvered to work closely with Russia during the Astana talks regarding ending the Syrian conflict. It met with Russia and Iran not only in Astana but also in Sochi and Geneva, with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to mesh well over Syria issues. This also ties into increased Russian-Turkey trade.
The US, meanwhile, is in its corner in eastern Syria. It is now saddled with tens of thousands of ISIS members who surrendered, more than 3,000 of them who are hard core male fighters from all around the world. European powers have said they mostly don’t want these threatening fighters to return. But it’s unclear how the US or others can duly constitute a kind of tribunal to put them on trial. Now they are in limbo.
“Beware world,” writes Robin Wright, whose new piece on the ISIS detainees was at The New Yorker. “These are the seeds of a revived ISIS.” The SDF now has to detain these seeds, but it doesn’t have the resources to do that without international support. It needs to rebuild Raqqa and other areas liberated from ISIS. And it faces a growing ISIS sleeper cell threat and also threats from its adversaries which now include not only Turkey but also pro-regime and Iranian-backed militias. The SDF had tried to speak with the Syrian regime last year and into this year hoping that the regime could come to some accommodation because Damascus doesn’t want Turkey gobbling up Manbij. But Russian prodding and other Syrian regime decisions mean there doesn’t seem to be an SDF-Damascus deal.
At the same time the US now needs the SDF to care for the detainees. Turkish media reported on April 15 that Washington “will work with Ankara to ensure the YPG/PKK terrorist group does not create a threat to Turkey in the establishment of a safe zone in Syria,” TRT notes. This was according to statements of James Jeffrey, the US special envoy on Syria, TRT claimed. Daily Sabah made similar claims. Meanwhile Al-Monitor says that the US is “pressing its Kurdish allies in Syria to ease their resistance to allowing Turkish forces to deploy on their side.” A source told Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman that “the Donald Trump administration’s Syria envoy, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, was expected to travel to northeastern Syria in the coming days, when he is likely to renew demands that Turkish forces be allowed to enter northeastern Syria.”
How can the US seek to create stability in eastern Syria and keep the ISIS detainees secure, when Turkey wants to deploy troops and the SDF is adamantly against it. The SDF has leverage since it controls the area. The US has leverage since it controls the air space. Turkey has leverage since it is a key NATO ally and is still involved with the S-400 purchase and Washington hopes to salvage that relationship somehow. This puts Washington in an incredibly difficult position trying to please everyone at the same time and not ending up pleasing anyone. It was this sense that caused Trump to announce the withdrawal in December. But others were able to forestall that, concerned that ISIS could benefit and that Iran, a backer of the Syrian regime would benefit. Washington just declared the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization and faces challenges with its policies in Iraq. It is loath to upset the delicate balance in eastern Syria. Whatever the US does now its options grow increasingly limited as knowledge of the threat posed by the ISIS detainees grows. The detainees have now put the US in a corner, even in defeat.