US trying to stay off the slippery slope in Syria
Although Washington and Ankara agreed to try to eliminate Islamic State (ISIS) fighters from an important portion of Turkey’s border with Syria, extending from Aleppo to the Euphrates, a White House official told a closed-door meeting at the Middle East Institute in Washington that the Obama administration has no intention of creating protected areas in northern Syria. They just want to clear the ISIS from a portion of the Turkish border.
This makes no sense.
ISIS governs the territory in question. Something will replace it if ISIS is “cleared”. The Turks can be counted on to prevent Syrian Kurds from filling the vacuum. Washington and Ankara should both be worried about who else might.
The territory in question is strategically important to ISIS, the Syrian opposition, the Syrian Kurds and the Turks. It will have to be protected and governed. This is where ISIS has excelled. Its brutality has re-established fear in the populations it controls and enabled it to govern with minimal resources.
ISIS brooks little dissent. It is unified, purposeful and predictable. Its courts are merciless. Crime in the areas it controls is down. Many Syrians no doubt would prefer to avoid the mistreatment ISIS dishes out but in a chaotic situation they may prefer to accept the devil they know. If ISIS is cleared out, one possibility is a return to the area of the Syrian government, whether in the guise of the decimated Syrian Army, Alawite/Shia militias or Hezbollah. From the Turkish point of view, that would be a disaster as it would significantly strengthen Ankara’s arch-enemy Bashar Assad on its southern border and provide him with the ability to allow infiltration of Turkey by both jihadi and Kurdish terrorists.
Or, more likely, ISIS could return as soon as American and Turkish attention turns elsewhere. The notion that ISIS can be cleared permanently without somehow providing minimal state functions in any area is unconvincing. Turkey is talking about Syrian refugees returning to the cleared area. They won’t do that unless there is some semblance of law and order.
The Americans may be leaving the tasks of holding and building to the Turks. That makes some sense because Turkish national interests are directly engaged. But a Turkish occupation of any part of Syria would rouse nationalist sentiments to fever pitch and risk unifying Syrians against a Turkish incursion.
The Turks could try to work through the moderate Syrian opposition, which is not strong in northern Syria and would need substantial assistance from Turkey to take over security and governance there. It is not clear that Ankara is prepared to take on that role but it may have to do so if it wants to keep the Kurds, the Syrian government and ISIS out of the area.
Withdrawal of ISIS has not brought peace and tranquillity to Tikrit, Kobane and other recovered areas. Like it or not, ISIS is more like an insurgency than anything else. Dealing with it requires the counter-insurgency not just to clear but also to hold and build. Neither in Iraq nor in Syria has this part of the job been done well.
So why is the Obama administration leaving this vital issue of who would govern in a liberated area of northern Syria unresolved? It wants to avoid getting involved in another state-building effort in the Middle East, where such attempts have repeatedly failed.
The impulse is understandable and US President Barack Obama has been committed to avoiding the slippery slope of greater US involvement in Syria. But Obama has acknowledged that it was a mistake to leave Libya to its own devices after the NATO-led intervention collapsed the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. Libya is in chaos. Breeding in that chaos are several jihadist groups, including some that identify with ISIS. It would be no less a mistake to clear the Islamic State from a portion of northern Syria and leave the governing of liberated territory to chance.