U.S. forces (and policy) in Syria head south

Washington, DC — It took less than a week after President Trump announced the summary withdrawal of the tripwire U.S. force deployed in northeast Syria alongside the Kurdish-dominated “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), before the SDF concluded a new alliance with the Syrian government. What happened between, of course, was the large-scale incursion of Turkish forces into the SDF-held part of Syria.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that Sinam Mohamad, the foreign representative for the SDF’s political arm, said that the SDF force, which Washington has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to train, arm, and support, could now “become part of the Syrian army.”

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US and SDF officers in Syria, in happier days for their relationship

There has been much handwringing here in the United States, both about Pres. Trump’s “betrayal” of the Kurds and about the fact that he seems ready, more broadly, to abandon the regime change project in Syria which for more than eight years has been a favored cause of the powerful “humanitarian interventionist” bloc in Washington.

Yes, the Syrian Kurds have been badly misused by Washington (as the Iraqi Kurds were in 1975 and 1991.) But in 2014, when the catastrophe of the ISIS caliphate erupted into northeast Syria and northwest Iraq, those Kurds chose to partner with the United States rather than with their own national government — which was also very highly motivated to fight ISIS.

There was always a degree of mutual/self-deception by both sides in that Kurdish-American alliance. The Americans were extremely happy to use the Kurds not only to counter ISIS but also to counter the Damascus government. (Once ISIS had been defeated, U.S. spokespeople justified the continued presence of U.S. forces in Syria by saying they hoped their presence would “strengthen the hands of the Kurds/SDF in any future negotiation with Damascus.” In reality, that was always code for “continuing to curb the power of Damascus as much as possible.”)

And in order to continue their cozy alliance with the Kurds, the American military seemed happy to completely overlook the very evident fact that their main allies, the Kurdish YPG, were actually, all along, just a Syrian-Kurdish branch of the Turkish-Kurdish “PKK” organization, which has been on the U.S. terrorism list for many years and which has mounted intermittent armed insurgencies against the Turkish government for several decades — including one that re-erupted in 2015.

So of course, the Ankara government was upset with the U.S.-YPG alliance. That is not to excuse their behavior in Syria over the past week. But it does help explain it.

As best I can understand Ankara’s current war plan, it would be to establish a continuous cordon sanitaire within northeastern Syria, that would prevent the YPG from being able easily to communicate with, and send arms and men into, the majority-Kurd parts of southeast Turkey. And the Turkish plan also seems to involve settling within the cordon sanitaire some of the three million or so Syrian refugees that Turkey has been hosting (with rapidly mounting reluctance) since almost the start of the civil conflict in Syria.

So from Ankara’s perspective, this plan could help kill a number of birds with one stone:

  • They would gain some additional protection for their own military in eastern Turkey from the threat that the PKK continues to pose in various areas.
  • They would reduce the “burden” that the Turkish people have increasingly been seeing the Syrian refugees as posing to their economy.
  • They could present themselves, indeed, as amazing humanitarians fior helping to effect the return of Syrian refugees to their own country (though still far, actually, from the areas of origin of most of these people.)
  • They could cause yet another headache for the Damascus government, in addition to the one they have caused for some years now via their support for the genocidal extremists now ruling in Idlib, further west.
  • And they could tweak those forces in Washington that they have distrusted since the whole, still mysterious Turkish coup event of July 2016 (in the plotting of which Erdogan strongly suspected that Washington had had a hand.)

As I noted here, back in July, northern Syria has for a while now been a hornet’s nest in which major geopolitical shifts have been enacted. For Russia, of course, the increasingly deep split between the two NATO allies, Turkey and the United States, is a notable achievement. Turkey long played a distinctive role in NATO, as the easternmost NATO power and (until the 1990s) the only one with frontage onto the Black Sea.

Over the coming days and weeks, as the U.S. forces hurry out of most of Syria — though will they remain in Tanf? — there will almost certainly be a race between the Turks and their allies, on one hand, and the SDF and their powerful new allies the Syrian Arab Army on the other, to seize/retain control of as much of the formerly SDF-held terrain as possible. Already, the SAA has sent some troops and reinforcements into Qamishli and Hasakeh.

What role will Russia’s diplomats and the Russian air and ground forces in Syria play in all this? We could perhaps look over to Idlib, in northwest Syria, where the genocidal takfiris of the Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) have received broad backing from Turkey, which also borders their enclave. There, the Turks and Russians have played an uneasy game of military coordination to avoid direct, open conflict between them — despite Moscow remaining strongly on the record as supporting the full territorial integrity of Syria. Will we see something similar happening in the northeast?

There is also, of course, the alarming “wild card” of possible — and already reported — mass breakouts of many of the ISIS fighters and supporters who were previously detained by the SDF. One could argue that all the state actors in the region and many non-state actors as well, including the SDF, have a strong interest in preventing any ISIS resurgence. However, we need to remember that Turkey bears the prime responsibility for the massive infiltration into all parts of northern Syria of ISIS fighters and Al-Qaeda/HTS fighters from all around the world. And Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all bear joint responsibility for the vast infusions of arms and money that the HTS-affiliated groups received throughout many years.

From the U.S. side, there were numerous serious deceptions involved in that relationship. The Syrian regime-change groups receiving U.S. arms and money over the past 8.5 years were all described to the American public as wonderful, idealistic “democrats” — except that most of the weapons and funding send by the united States ended up in the hands of the genocidal HTS. And the principal non-takfiri regime-change militia that was backed by Washington and its EU allies was the “Free Syrian Army”… which these days is the backbone of the “Syrian” force that Ankara is injecting into northeastern Syria. By all accounts, those fighters, too, are very far from Jeffersonian democrats.

So this, at this point, is what has become of the always illegal (under international law) and always badly misguided U.S. attempt to bring about regime change in Syria through violent means. Syria’s war-devastated country and people are slightly better off today than their even more tragic counterparts in Libya. (At least the Syrians have a national government and some hope of rebuilding their country.) But the moral balance-sheet of the civil war that Washington has stoked in Syria for the past 8.5 years is truly a morass.

It is long past time now that the U.S. government and people give up on the dangerous illusion that they (we) have any right to determine the futures of other countries. In Syria, as in Libya and elsewhere, we can see what “humanitarian interventionism” (aka imperialism with a ‘humanitarian’ face) has led to. Time, I think, to return to the 350-year-old truths of the Treaty of Westphalia.

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.

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