Collapse of US position in Syria began under Obama
The beginning of Turkey’s third incursion into Syria, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring” and aimed at the areas east of the Euphrates River, is the culmination of US policy started under former President Barack Obama and that has been continued by President Donald Trump.
That it is inevitable makes it no less tragic for the innocents caught up in this mess. It does mean that the emotive posturing on social media and attempts by Obama-era officials to cast the blame for the Syria catastrophe on Trump are more-than-usually grotesque.
Obama called on Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad, to depart in August 2011 and then spent nearly six years running away from this pronouncement. Relations with Iran — Assad’s principal supporter — were to be mended and US troops were to be brought home. Obama’s legacy would be “ending” the United States’ wars in the Middle East and leaving a new system in which local countries “share” the region without the US policeman.
Unfortunately, the revolutionary Islamist regime in Iran had no interest in sharing. Tehran took the chance to fill any and all vacuums left by US power before pushing on, supported by an emboldened Russia that had taken Obama’s measure and flush with cash from Obama’s nuclear deal, to challenge the United States in core areas. Hence, the attacks on the shipping lanes of the Gulf and the missile barrage against Aramco in Saudi Arabia.
The United States had to intervene in Syria in 2014 after the Islamic State (ISIS) declared its caliphate and began beheading hostages. The United States chose the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its anti-ISIS partner.
The issue was and is that the PYD/YPG is the name for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) when it operates on Syrian soil. The PKK is a US-listed terrorist organisation that has waged war against NATO’s Turkey for decades.
Obama officials — and not a few analysts — defend the alliance with the PKK as a matter of practicality. “The YPG is a foreign terrorist organisation” with “no hard distinction” between it and the PKK,” wrote Andrew Exum, who served in Obama’s State Department, in 2017, when Trump was preparing to publicly arm the YPG. Exum added that “arm[ing] people we consider to be terrorists… [is] in the best interests of the American people.”
The problem with this argument is that it makes no sense. Whatever ad hocery there was in helping the PKK save — after initial hesitation — Syria’s Kobane and Iraq’s Sinjar from falling to ISIS in 2014, that argument expired once the emergency passed. Nor was there any mystery regarding what tensions would be stirred with local Arabs and Turkey by expanding PKK control over vast areas of north-eastern Syria. So why do it?
If it was about durability, there were locally legitimate rebel groups to work with. Even if one accepts the Obama apologist argument that all the rebels available were weak and penetrated with extremists, then a local force could be built. If it was about exigency because of the ISIS foreign attacks campaign, then the duty is to send in US and allied forces directly to destroy ISIS.
Former CENTCOM Commander US Army General Joseph Votel was more precise when he recently wrote in the Atlantic that the PKK was “the right partner” because it would “help us defeat ISIS without getting drawn into” a conflict with Assad, whose overthrow was the publicly stated US policy. In other words, the PKK fulfilled the two key political desires of Obama: to avoid offending the Iranians and to avoid “boots on the ground” — a proxy that would not damage Assad.
When ISIS’s caliphate was swept away, the PKK was in control of one-third of Syria, most of which had been rebel-held territory that ISIS had taken in 2013-14. Internal to Syria, this radically redrew the political balance of power in a war the United States was supposedly not involved in and it left a statelet controlled by Turkey’s nemesis on Turkey’s border.
Counterterrorism had yielded a geopolitical disaster that would undo even the counterterrorism mission — and this result was built into the strategy laid down by Obama.
Trump could have turned off this course by not sending the PKK into Raqqa and, for just a moment in early 2017, it seemed that he would but his plans for an Arab expeditionary force to defeat ISIS in its capital were thwarted.
Since the United States was never going to realistically side with the PKK over Turkey in the long term, the next step was either for the United States to withdraw in short order and see the PKK statelet dismantled by Turkey or to stay on until a Turkey-PKK settlement was reached that allowed the United States to retain both its ally and partner force. Trump has never made a secret of his desire to get out of Syria once ISIS no longer held territory, so here we are.
It is unlikely Turkey will stray too deeply into north-eastern Syria, so it is possible the United States will remain in a shrunken PKK statelet further south or else Trump might get his way and the United States will pull out entirely, leaving the areas of “Rojava” not taken by Turkey to the Assad/Iran system.
Both sides have a sense of grievance with the other. Turkey’s support for jihadi-adjacent forces such as Ahrar al-Sham caused problems beyond Syria and the Turks themselves must rue the decision not to move into Kobane and crush ISIS’s nascent caliphate.
As well as forestalling a PKK statelet, the military foothold and political windfall from such action would have left Turkey substantially able to dictate events in Syria but this is what happens when US allies are left to go it alone — and Turkey was left alone, even when its jets were shot down and it brought down Russian warplanes.
When this abandonment of an ally, to use the current parlance, was added to by active support for Turkey’s sworn nemesis — the equivalent of the United States building up Hezbollah on Israel’s border as a “counterterrorism” force — the US-Turkey relationship naturally suffered.
There is no need for the hysterical claims that Turkey will commit “genocide” against “the Kurds” in Syria; the reality is quite grim enough. Though Turkey’s record with military incursions in Syria is of relatively low civilian and property destruction, there is no guarantee that, if this operation east of the Euphrates bogs down or a panic ensues, there won’t be a terrible displacement. The threat is primarily to Iraqi Kurdistan, from both a destabilising wave of refugees and a movement of PKK operatives into northern Iraq.
The aftermath of the Turkish operations is the more worrying aspect. In Afrin, a previous Turkish operation, not only were there looting and continued lawlessness overseen by predatory militias but 200,000 displaced Kurds have been unable to return, while Arab refugees from Damascus and elsewhere have settled in the province, altering the demographics. There are indications something similar is coming east of the Euphrates.
The Turkish government’s announcement that it would return 1 million refugees — mostly Arabs from areas held by Assad — to areas captured east of the Euphrates would be a similar act of ethnic engineering and would run roughshod over the state’s non-refoulement obligations. The process of “repatriation” is likely to be ugly, closer to forced deportations, since many Syrians expect that the Assad regime will re-enter areas currently held by the PKK and the refugees will resist being placed back under the rule of the regime from which they fled.
All the sound and fury were unavoidable but it was an argument over the ruins. The strategic collapse of the US position in the northern Middle East happened some time ago and Trump’s contribution to that was modest.