The Obama administration tried to do everything as Syria disintegrated, only to find out how hard it was to do anything well. Washington wanted to oust Assad, defeat ISIS, back “moderate” insurgents, enlist Sunni Gulf countries against Sunni radicals, cooperate with radical groups, including al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, limit Iranian influence, strengthen Kurdish forces, pacify Turkey, and manage Russia. The Islamic State is essentially defeated, while everything else went FUBAR.
The demise of ISIS offered the administration an opportunity to declare victory and bring home America’s troops. Syria never has mattered much to the U.S. It remains a humanitarian tragedy, but its disposition won’t much affect Washington’s domination of the Middle East. No reason to squander resources for no good purpose.
However, the administration decided to maintain some 2,000 troops in Syria’s north. The president said a “border security force” would prevent any ISIS renewal, but that is unnecessary with Syrian, Turkish, Iranian, Russian and insurgent forces nearby.
Administration officials admitted that they were embarking upon other missions, both Quixotic and illegal: occupy a quarter of Syria to force President Bashar al‐Assad from power, drive Iranian forces out of the country and pressure Russia to support American political objectives. Washington’s planned vehicle for this ambitious effort was the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
In fact, denying this territory to Damascus might inconvenience Assad, but he survived far worse. Iranian transit might be less secure through a nominal Kurdish zone, but the YPG cannot hermetically seal the informal borders. And Moscow’s commitment to Assad’s survival doesn’t depend on his sway over the north.