Flashpoint in Syria shows complexity of a conflict’s endgame
Turkish tanks rolled into northern Syria Sunday, attacking Syrian Kurdish forces that have been instrumental US allies in the fight against Islamic State militants.
The Turkish offensive is the latest move in a confluence of events that mark a new stage of the seven-year-old Syrian conflict. As the main players strive to establish facts on the ground to maximize their own chances of shaping postwar Syria, Turkey in particular is challenging core components of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
The short-term catalyst for the clash was a Pentagon declaration last week that the United States now plans to extend indefinitely a military presence in northeast Syria, and build a largely Kurdish force of 30,000 to help achieve its aims. ISIS has been squeezed from most of its territory in Syria, thanks largely to a US-backed Kurdish force, but momentum in the war is favoring President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies.
The declaration infuriated Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who called the northern Syria Kurdish forces a “terror army” established by the US. He vowed that the Turkish military would cross into Syria to “strangle” the new US-backed force “before it was born.”
The new force is a key piece for the Trump administration as it rolls out an ambitious, three-pronged Syria policy, which aims to prevent the reemergence of ISIS, help orchestrate a postwar Syria without President Assad, and contain Iranian influence.
But analysts note that Russia and Iran have already prevailed in Syria, and the US is acting from a position of relative weakness. And they ask whether the US administration, which has a history of inconsistent messaging on foreign policy, has the capacity and patience to achieve those goals.
The backbone of the new militia would be the umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed group that is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that also include some Arab forces. The new militia would deploy on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, its eastern border with Iraq, and along the Euphrates River.
Turkey has long been angry at the overt US support for the YPG over its close affiliation with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has waged a lethal insurgency against Ankara.
In an attempt to defuse the clash with Turkey over the force, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis acknowledged Sunday that Turkey had “legitimate” security concerns. But Turkey's vitriol signals a new low in US-Turkey relations.
At the same time, while Turkish forces advance to create what Ankara calls a 20-mile deep “security zone” in northern Syria, analysts wonder if the Trump administration will be able to see its new Syria policy through to fruition.
“There does seem to be an element of Washington giving up on Turkey and driving forward their position in Syria with an anti-Iran prioritization, but as ever with the Trump administration, the tide seems to turn so quickly, it’s really hard to know how much this new approach is anchored in anything real or sustainable,” says Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations in Brussels.
'A very weak position'
For years, Washington and its allies, including Turkey and Persian Gulf states, supported anti-Assad rebels in a proxy war. But today, the Americans “are in a very weak position,” and achieving results that press both Damascus and Tehran “would require a much wider and deeper military push than Trump is ever going to be prepared to undertake,” says Mr. Barnes-Dacey.
He also notes an “inherent contradiction” in the policy the US shares with the European Union and the UN that Russia – whose airpower helped ensure Assad's survival – can pressure Assad into compromises at the negotiating table. That can happen only with a joint Russia-Iran push. Yet the declared US anti-Iran approach will likely “kill off any hope” of such an outcome, says Barnes-Dacey.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who tried last week to calm the dispute with Turkey, on Wednesday publicly enunciated the emerging US policy. It was anti-ISIS, anti-Assad, and – emphasized for the first time on that battlefield – anti-Iran.
Mr. Tillerson said Iran had “dramatically strengthened” its role in Syria, a status that would be “further” enhanced by any US disengagement, enabling Iran to “continue attacking US interests, our allies and personnel.” The continued US presence, he said, would be aimed at “reducing and expelling malicious Iranian influence."
Whether or not Turkey and the US are aligned on ISIS and Assad, however, Turkey’s reaction is being driven by the prospect of a sustained US presence in Syria, which is “tantamount to a security guarantee” for the Syria’s Kurdish militias, says Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington.
Turkey chose to vilify “whatever is left of US-Turkish relations” with its rhetoric and cross-border incursion, while the US was also insensitive by stating it would create a new force in Syria when it already had one in place, says Mr. Stein.
Operation Olive Branch
Turkey on Saturday announced the launch of Operation Olive Branch, with shelling of YPG positions. The ground offensive began on Sunday, and Turkish media on Monday reported that Turkish forces had advanced more than three miles into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, north of Aleppo. The YPG claimed it had pushed back the offensive.
The aim is to “liberate the area by eliminating the PKK-YPG-linked administration,” according to a Turkish official who commented on condition of anonymity. He said the operation would continue east toward the larger city of Manbij. The SDF units with direct US support are farther east, across the Euphrates River.
“I suppose Washington is trying to keep Afrin entirely separate from the situation east of the Euphrates,” says Frederic Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council. “The logic would be that the … SDF is the anti-ISIS coalition ‘partner force,’ and that the partnership in question does not extend to Afrin or any place beyond the anti-ISIS area of operations.”
While the US-Turkish fight over Kurdish control unfolds, the addition of the US anti-Iran strategy stems from a desire by some at the National Security Council to “get tough and put Iran on notice,” says Stein.
“Anybody who knows how Iran operates … knows that this will not put Iran on notice,” he says. “Iran and Russia and the [Syrian] regime have won this war, they will settle this thing on their terms. The US is hanging on for dear life, and trying to alter an outcome that’s probably unalterable.”
That is not stopping Washington from trying. Iran was high on the list of priorities during testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary for Near East affairs, was asked about the continued role of US forces in Syria.
“We are deeply concerned with the activities of Iran, with the ability of Iran to enhance those activities through a greater ability to move materiel into Syria,” said Mr. Satterfield.
Balancing policy aims
Analysts say that if Iranian forces and their allies were to move unopposed into eastern Syria it could trigger a backlash by the Sunni population, which resents the Shiite-flavor of Iran’s military presence.
“The US problem with Iran is that it uses a [Shiite] sectarian agenda to prop up these rickety states like Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere that generates stronger and stronger variants of ISIS and Al Qaeda,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The new US policy will try to balance these multiple policy aims in a way that Washington has never achieved throughout the Syrian conflict. Instead, immediate focus on tactical gains – such as using Syrian Kurds as a key component against ISIS, despite the anger of a NATO ally – has often created new dilemmas.
“Successive US administrations have failed to find a means of taking into account Turkey’s very real, and to some extent understandable, objections to support a group so closely linked to the PKK,” says Noah Bonsey, the senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group.
At the same time, “a precipitous [US] withdrawal from northeastern Syria could very well pave the way for a new war,” he says, in which the many enemies of the YPG might move against the Kurdish militia.
“The rhetoric probably does overstate what can be achieved, [but] to some extent by maintaining a US presence you diminish the likelihood of that destabilizing scenario, at least temporarily,” says Mr. Bonsey.