Obama administration officials were outraged when Russian and Syrian government planes recently attacked rebel positions in and near the city of Aleppo. Such raids were a humanitarian atrocity, President Obama charged, when they struck civilian targets. But Washington had little patience even for assaults directed against military targets. Those attacks, U.S. officials contended, played into the hands of ISIS by damaging insurgent elements opposed to that extremist group and even creating incentives for moderates to make common cause with ISIS. The regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian allies responded with the assertion that they were not targeting moderates, but were in fact attacking either ISIS units or other “terrorists.”
Whatever the merit of Washington’s criticism in that case, it has been severely undermined by the latest action of America’s “loose-cannon” NATO ally, Turkey. The Turkish military just launched attacks against forces of the YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, in positions north of Aleppo. According to Turkish authorities, the raids killed some 200 Kurdish fighters. Ankara insists that the YPG is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a violent separatist movement in Turkey itself. YPG leaders deny such a connection, and Washington continues to regard Kurdish forces as a crucial component of the anti-ISIS coalition.
This latest incident underscores three points. First, Turkey is an increasingly unreliable ally that pursues its own narrow agenda regardless of Washington’s wishes. Second, regardless of Ankara’s probable motive, which apparently was to stem growing Kurdish power in both Syria and Turkey, the attack objectively strengthened ISIS by damaging one of its most effective military adversaries. Third, the Syrian civil war is incredibly complex. It is not a simple melodrama featuring the evil Assad regime versus noble, freedom-seeking rebels. The insurgents themselves are extensively fragmented, with agendas ranging from genuine Western-style democracy to Saudi-style Islamic fundamentalism. Outside parties, especially Russia, Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, all back certain Syrian factions to advance their own geopolitical objectives.
To its credit, the Obama administration has refrained from full-scale involvement—a “big footprint” military intervention–in Syria’s civil war. But U.S. efforts to encourage Assad’s ouster helped create the ongoing tragedy, and even Obama’s “light footprint” strategy has entangled the United States far too deeply in a murky and ultimately unwinnable struggle. One hopes that the next president will have the wisdom to extricate the United States from this beckoning quagmire and let the Turks, Russians, Saudis, and others deal with the headache of the Syrian civil war.