In Syria, the Obama administration tried to do everything, only to find out how hard it was to do anything. Washington wanted to oust Assad, defeat ISIS, back “moderate” insurgents, enlist Sunni Gulf countries against Sunni radicals, cooperate with radical groups that included al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, limit Iranian influence, strengthen Kurdish forces, pacify Turkey, and manage Russia. The Islamic State was essentially defeated, but everything else went FUBAR.
The demise of ISIS offered the administration an opportunity to declare victory and bring home America’s troops. Syria has never mattered much to the U.S.; today it matters far more to its neighbors and to Russia. Its civil war remains a humanitarian tragedy, but its disposition won’t much affect the Middle East’s balance of power, which Washington and its allies dominate. Better to stop squandering resources for no good purpose than to keep feeding weapons and troops into the distant Syrian maw.
Instead the Trump administration has decided to maintain some 2,000 troops in Syria’s north. The president justified plans for a “border security force” as necessary to prevent any ISIS revival, but that seems unnecessary with Syrian, Turkish, Iranian, Russian, and insurgent forces all available nearby. The Islamic State is far more likely to morph into something like al‐Qaeda, a transnational terrorist organization, rather than another caliphate or quasi‐state.
Contra the president’s claim, his officials admitted that they were embarking upon other missions, which happened to be 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, which acted as the core of the Syrian Defense Forces.
In fact, denying this territory to Damascus might have inconvenienced Assad, but he survived when his government controlled far fewer people and resources, and he wrote off the Kurdish territories for the duration of the conflict. Iranian transit might be less secure through a nominal Kurdish zone, but the YPG is in no position to hermetically seal off the informal borders. And Moscow’s commitment to Assad’s survival doesn’t depend on his sway over the north.
More importantly, while the YPG appreciated U.S. arms and backing, it was always unlikely to battle the Syrian army on America’s behalf, since Damascus had respected the relative autonomy of the self‐declared Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, or Rojava. No doubt the Kurds, generally Sunnis and religious moderates, have no love for Iranian forces, but neither are they likely to see their interests advanced by attempting to forcibly block cooperation between Syria and Iran. And the YPG was able to forge a working relationship with Russia, cooperating militarily against ISIS. Continued Kurdish influence does not threaten Moscow’s role in Syria.
Thus, the administration’s plan looked stillborn from the start. And that was before Turkey got involved.
Apparently the president and his aides thought Ankara would politely acquiesce to the creation of a well‐armed Kurdish state on Turkey’s border. That suggests a policymaking process based in fantasy. Turkey has long dealt brutally with its Kurds, a trend not broken by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he restarted the war in 2015 to great political benefit. Last fall, Ankara penalized Kurdistan, with which it had established a working relationship, for staging an independence referendum. Moreover, the Erdogan government had complained vociferously about U.S. military support for and cooperation with the YPG, even in battling the Islamic State. Once the defeat of ISIS was achieved, Ankara’s patience was exhausted.
In January, Turkey invaded Syria and struck Kurdish forces near Afrin. Almost immediately Kurdish forces, armed and trained by the U.S., left to battle Turkey, a NATO ally. American officials first whined that Ankara was not being “helpful” and was undermining the two nations’ “shared” objectives. But the Erdogan government was not trying to be helpful and the two states did not have the same goals.
Then military officials threatened that U.S. troops would defend themselves, sparking return threats from Erdogan. Finally, then‐secretary of state Rex Tillerson scurried to Ankara where he promised that the two governments would work “arm in arm” to sort out the issue—which meant an American surrender.
Turkey explained that it “expected from the U.S. that it should absolutely step in” to prevent the shift of YPG fighters to back those Kurds under attack by Turkey. That hardly seems possible, since the Kurdish units are not under American command. Washington could threaten to stop aid for the YPG, but under Turkish pressure U.S. officials had previously indicated that assistance would terminate when ISIS was destroyed. The Americans on station certainly weren’t going to hold their allies at gunpoint.
Moreover, Turkey indicated that the administration agreed to shift the Kurdish forces away from Manbij near the border to east of the Euphrates River. But the same questions arise: how will the U.S. do so? Why should the Kurds agree? And if they don’t, what does Washington plan to do? If Ankara decided to treat a Kurdish refusal as a casus belli, then all the Americans could do would be to fight or leave.
Connections on the ground are strong. One anonymous U.S. official admitted that “it’s tricky for us, because we’ve spent a lot of years with those guys” and “built profoundly deep personal relationships.” However, the administration has no stomach for a military game of chicken with Turkey, which means the U.S. almost certainly will abandon the Kurds again.
After that the Kurds will have little reason to do Washington’s bidding. Indeed, after the Turkish invasion the Kurdish forces approached Damascus, which sent Assad‐backed militias to assist in fighting against the Turks. Why would the Kurds then aid Washington, which acceded to Ankara’s demands, against Damascus, which took their side?
The U.S. should have gotten out of Syria altogether after the Islamic State’s collapse rather than start a process certain to so spectacularly and embarrassingly fail. But exit remains the administration’s best strategy.
Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall. He can’t be put back together by anyone. What emerges next is impossible to predict, but it isn’t Washington’s responsibility. This is one war in which the president can finally declare victory and bring home America’s combatants—hopefully in time for the military parade he is planning.