What does al-Rai incident say about US reputation in Syria?
ONTARIO - Video footage of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters shouting anti-American chants at US troops has gone viral on social media. The US soldiers were entering the northern Syria town of al-Rai to assist a Turkish-led operation against the Islamic State (ISIS) but retreated to the Turkish border due to resistance from a rebel group.
The flag seen in the footage identifies the FSA unit to be Ahrar al- Sharqiya, a rebel group that had been vetted by the US Central Command but recently lost its special status. Chants heard in the video include “Down with America” and “We don’t accept any American collaborating with us”.
The United States confirmed that it deployed a contingent of special forces to al-Rai and Jarabulus in northern Syria at Ankara’s request to advise on the anti-ISIS operation.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya released a video statement soon after the footage went public, saying it refuses to work with the United States because of its support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Al-Sharqiya considers the YPG to be a separatist movement and, like many other opposition factions, has been in a long-standing conflict with the group. Al-Sharqiya fighters have accused other FSA factions of treason for collaborating with US troops.
On September 17th, all Turkey-backed FSA factions, with the exception of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, agreed to allow US troops to take part in the operation against ISIS. It is likely that Turkey put pressure on the factions to agree to the coordination. Al-Sharqiya suspended its participation in the operation.
The cross-border, anti-ISIS operation, known as Euphrates Shield, was launched by Turkey on August 24th, with support from local Arab FSA factions and US air cover. The operation has made significant advances against ISIS in the border strip between Azaz and Jarabulus.
The al-Rai incident and Ahrar al-Sarqiya’s rejection of US troops highlight major issues with Washington’s position in Syria. The reputation of the United States in Syria has undoubtedly been shaken since the start of uprisings in March 2011. Growing anti-American sentiment is visible and likely the result of failed US policy in Syria.
The video of al-Rai presents a stark contrast to the US standing in the peaceful early days of the uprising. In July 2011, US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford travelled to Hama, where massive protests against Syrian President Bashar Assad were taking place. Ford was greeted by the public with flowers and olive branches.
In the operation in al-Rai, US troops were forced to flee the area — not by hard-line Islamist forces but by nationalist rebels. The event suggests that the US reputation among the Syrian people has deteriorated and calls into question its effectiveness on Syria’s battlefields.
The actions of Ahrar al-Sharqiya were a strategic mistake for the FSA; however, the behaviour should come as no surprise. The United States has taken steps to weaken its position among the various groups in Syria.
The Obama administration continues to narrowly focus on combating ISIS while disregarding broader factors and root causes of the conflict. This strategy has empowered divergences and fragmentations in the structure of the Syrian rebellion. The United States has forged complex alliances and has reached the point at which its allies fought each other.
The Obama administration chose the YPG as its partner in fighting throughout northern Syria, a decision that put US backing of Arab opposition groups at stake and weakened its standing against ISIS and the Assad regime.
US coordination with Turkey is of key significance to the war in Syria, yet the United States strained its ties to the regional power and NATO ally by working with the YPG. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group and US support for YPG prompted Turkey to focus on countering the growing Kurdish autonomy, rather than strengthening mainstream rebels to counter ISIS and the regime.
Now, Turkey and the United States are engaged in a somewhat proxy clash of interests in Syria.
Once the Turkish Army intervened in northern Syria, the United States found its support of YPG comprised. Washington agreed to back Ankara in its operation in northern Syria, only to prevent Turkey from clashing with YPG. As a result, scepticism grew among YPG ranks, which oppose Turkey’s intervention and have begun to open dialogue with Russia.
Further complicating its position in the broader Syrian conflict, the United States addressed the need to end the war by engaging with Russia. Russia is an actor heavily involved militarily in supporting the Assad regime. US engagement with Russia has led to Arab rebels developing a mistrust of Washington. That has fed into al-Qaeda’s narrative and helped it gain public support in Aleppo and Idlib.
Washington is no longer viewed as reliable by the Syrian opposition. The more rebels continue to lose confidence in the United States and the West, the less hope there is for establishing a civil democratic state and the more extremist groups are likely to prevail.
If the United States aims to repair its reputation among the opposition in Syria, Turkey is likely to play a mediating role. Ankara has a stable relationship and influence with the FSA and the capacity to encourage cooperation with the United States. If Turkey is to play a role, however, the United States will need to make major shifts in its policy in Syria, including rethinking Kurdish aid and tackling Russian influence.