What does al-Rai incident say about US reputation in Syria?

Sunday 02/10/2016
US-backed Syrian Arab trainees

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.