foreign affairs

America’s Role in Syria Just Got a Lot More Complicated

Turkish army troops gather near the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province, on January 21, 2018. Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Turkish forces, along with their Syrian rebel allies, have been battling a Kurdish militia for control of the Afrin district of northwestern Syria since Saturday, opening yet another front in a civil war that is about to enter its eighth year with no resolution in sight.

The Kurdish militia in question, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is the main army of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (also known as Rojava), the Kurdish-majority, ethnically diverse, de facto autonomous area of northern Syria, which has been building itself into a self-governing region out of the wreckage of the shattered country. Turkey, however, considers the YPG a terrorist organization in league with its own Kurdish rebels, particularly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the U.S. and E.U. also label a terror group. More to the point, Turkey fears that Kurdish autonomy in Syria and/or Iraq will embolden Kurdish separatism within its own borders and put its territorial integrity at risk.

This new Turkish campaign, ironically named “Operation Olive Branch,” presents a dilemma for Washington, as the YPG has been backed by the U.S. for several years, fighting with American arms and assisted by U.S. special forces and air support in a series of successful campaigns against the Islamic State. Turkey, meanwhile, is a member of NATO, and thus our treaty ally is now in an all-out war with one of our most effective proxies in Syria, threatening to destabilize the one part of that country that has managed to achieve any semblance of functionality and security.

U.S.-backed militias have periodically battled each other in the chaotic civil war, of course, but this is a complication of a different magnitude. As long as the YPG, Turkey, and other sundry Syrian rebel factions were all fighting ISIS, the tensions along the Syria-Turkey border could be left to simmer on the back burner, but now that ISIS has been all but entirely driven out of Syria, they are inevitably flaring up again.

For the U.S., this means facing the ugly reality that none of the parties to this conflict are our natural allies: Rojava is a radical experiment in postcapitalist communitarian democracy, while Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become an increasingly authoritarian Islamist dictatorship that has begun cozying up to Russia and Iran as its relations with the U.S. and NATO deteriorate. Unfortunately, both of these uncomfortable allies are necessary to attaining the American goal of stabilizing Syria enough to keep ISIS or Al Qaeda from regaining a foothold there.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea, the administration has attempted to mollify Turkey while maintaining our relationship with indigenous militias in northern Syria. President Donald Trump told Erdogan in November that the U.S. would stop arming the YPG, but earlier this month, the American-led coalition revealed that it was training a 30,000-strong force to secure Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq, at least half of which would come from the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of militias led by the YPG. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to assuage Turkish concerns last week, saying the border security force had been “misportrayed,” but to no avail. The revelation that the U.S. was still working with Syrian Kurdish forces infuriated Turkey and likely helped precipitate its latest offensive.

Whatever territory changes hands as a result of this Turkish campaign, it underscores the rapid unraveling of American-Turkish relations. The Trump administration has been realigning the U.S. with a new set of partners in the Middle East, tacitly uniting Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. in an effort to intimidate (or maybe invade) Iran. In this realignment, Turkey has been largely sidelined.

Now, after backing opposing sides in the Syrian conflict for years, Turkey and Iran had been having a bit of a rapprochement in recent months, united by their concerns over Kurdish separatism and U.S. machinations in the region. Erdogan, for example, was among the precious few world leaders to praise Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s response to the protests that recently swept the country. Tehran and Ankara are not quite allies, however; after all, one supports Syrian president Bashar Assad and the other favors his removal. Iran on Sunday urged Turkey to end its military operations in Afrin quickly and to respect Syria’s territorial integrity, warning that the operation could benefit terrorist groups in the area and harm the Syrian peace process being brokered by Turkey, Iran, and Russia.

Nonetheless, Turkey and Iran share an interest in countering Saudi hegemony, and Erdogan has sought to defuse tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, fearing the regional conflagration that could ensue from an all-out war. The increasingly paranoid Erdogan also shares Iran’s suspicion that the U.S., which he recently accused of plotting to undermine his government, is a malicious actor in the Middle East. In this context, there’s an argument to be made that the U.S. should cut ties with Turkey, even if that means suspending its NATO membership or kicking it out of the alliance entirely.

Unfortunately, breaking up with Turkey also carries huge risks: It would likely drive Erdogan further into Russia’s welcoming embrace, for one thing, and more important, it would undermine whatever it is we’re doing in Syria. Last Wednesday, Tillerson acknowledged that American troops will be staying in Syria long after ISIS is defeated, for much the same reasons the administration has decided to keep our military indefinitely entangled in Afghanistan. The U.S.’s goals in Syria, Tillerson said, include preventing ISIS and Al Qaeda from regrouping there, supporting the U.N. process for peace and political reform, and curbing the influence of Iran.

Implicit in at least two of those goals is regime change, as Assad is an Iranian client and meaningful political reform is impossible as long as he remains in power. Unfortunately, the other consequence of ISIS’s defeat is that the Syrian army and other pro-government forces have regained control of most of the southern two-thirds of the country, so Assad’s position is much stronger now than it was a few years ago, while the rebellion has split into a staggering number of factions, all with different visions of the future of the country. Among the key regional players Turkey, Russia, and Iran, only Turkey is pushing for Assad to go.

Meanwhile, Tillerson can maintain that the role of the U.S. is primarily one of peacekeeping and diplomacy, but it’s hard to see how these objectives are fulfilled without an extended military engagement. The Trump administration is going to have to decide soon just how many soldiers, planes, and dollars it is willing to commit to achieving its goals in Syria — and get a lot more specific about what those goals really are.

America’s Role in Syria Just Got a Lot More Complicated