20 March 2018

America’s Syrian drift

By Kyle Orton and Oved Lobel

Turkey and Syrian rebel allies captured Afrin city in north-western Syria from the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG) this weekend. The YPG has gained notice as the partner force of the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State. But, as Pentagon spokesman Robert Manning acknowledged on March 6, the YPG has been diverting its troops from the fight against IS in eastern Syria to the war with Turkey on the other side of the country. Manning presented this as a temporary setback, but the shifting dynamics might prove to be the undoing of the Coalition’s mission in Syria.

The US’s alliance with the YPG came about by happenstance. The international coalition mobilised to fight IS after its declaration of a “caliphate” in June 2014, and the coalition’s first major battle after airstrikes were extended into Syria came in the town of Kobani, which IS had besieged and was poised to overrun. Initially, the US said Kobani was not a “strategic objective,” even if its fall would be “horrific” to watch. Within two weeks, as the contest for Kobani became an international media spectacle, the US reversed itself and said it would be “irresponsible” to allow the town to fall. In order to prevent IS taking the town, the US provided weapons and air support to the force holding it, the YPG.

After the Kobani siege was broken, the US began formalising its alliance with the YPG, which rebranded itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and took on some Arab dependencies, as it expanded operations to clear IS from swathes of northern and eastern Syria.

This arrangement angered the US’s NATO partner, Turkey, because the YPG is the name under which the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) operates in Syria, and the YPG/PKK was wholly dominant within the SDF. The PKK, an internationally-recognised narco-terrorist organisation, including by the US, has waged an insurgency intended to dismember the Turkish state since 1984. A byproduct of the U.S.’s anti-IS campaign was to create a PKK-run statelet along Turkey’s border, which has provided logistical support, as well as recruits and international legitimacy, for terrorism inside Turkey.

Turkey tried to work diplomatically through the U.S. to constrain the YPG/PKK, but was ultimately unable to do so. In May 2016, Turkey backed a YPG-led offensive, supported by US air power, to push IS out of Minbij, in exchange for promises of YPG withdrawal and local rule in the aftermath. These promises were not kept, and when the YPG began moving further west it triggered a direct Turkish intervention.

Fast forward to the present, where not only did the U.S. fail to constrain the growth of the YPG; it began to publicly arm them and expanded their realm to include Raqqa — taken after the near-complete destruction of the city because of the YPG’s limited capabilities when it comes to urban warfare — and large areas of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. The US announcement in January that it intended to create a 30,000-strong PKK-run border protection force provided the spark for Turkey to follow-through on the threats it had been making for a year, invading Afrin, long thought to be a bastion of PKK support in Syria.

Turkey hoped to achieve at least three objectives in Afrin. First, and most immediate, to carve out a buffer zone along the border. Second, to “lure the YPG to Afrin and weaken them there,” as Burak Kadercan, an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College puts it, perhaps by drawing the YPG into a protracted contest for Afrin city, which the Turks intended to clear of YPG operatives by one means or another. Third, to get the Americans to take Turkey’s concerns more seriously.

The first objective was accomplished at the end of February, and the increased time American officials are spending with the Turks suggest Ankara has made some progress on its third objective. The reports that the US had agreed to move the YPG east of the Euphrates River appear to be untrue for now, but evicting the YPG/PKK from the flashpoint town of Minbij was the “strategic priority” of the OLIVE BRANCH operation, according to Kadercan, and Turkey is now in a position to press this point because of its success with the second objective.

By some estimates, as many as 20,000 YPG/PKK fighters had moved from eastern Syria to Afrin by the middle of February, which if true represents 40 per cent of its force. In early March, with Turkey and its rebel allies having nearly cut the Afrin canton in two and reaching the gates of Afrin city, the YPG publicly acknowledged transferring 1,700 more troops into Afrin, mostly Arab SDF units—underlining the PKK’s control over the SDF. The YPG’s lines collapsed so quickly in Afrin city that it ordered a retreat, avoiding the “flypaper” trap that could have decimated its forces.

The YPG insists it will now wage guerrilla warfare against the Turkish-held areas, but the YPG remains stretched and the political damage, to the YPG’s reputation as a formidable fighting force and to the group’s morale, as well as the strategic losses of territory, leave the YPG—and by extension the United States—vulnerable to Turkey’s next moves.

The prospect of a Turkish escalation against Minbij is now very real. After the success, from Ankara’s perspective, of the Afrin operation, there is every incentive to press on and try to collapse the whole YPG system. “As long as Turkey and the [Free Syrian Army-branded rebels] push, the Rojava structure is unstable,” says Kadercan. Ankara has the additional capacity to “leverage the tensions” of unhappy Arab populations under YPG rule to destabilise Rojava, something that appears to be underway. Some of the wilder statements from Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including his threats to clear the YPG all the way from Afrin to the Iraqi border, have suggested Turkey would risk a direct confrontation with the US, but there is reason to think that this is Ankara’s ham-fisted way of negotiating. The Turks “probably hope that the move [towards Minbij] will itself convince US to pressure the YPG to move out,” says Kadercan.

Part of the miscalculation that led to this outbreak of violence in Afrin, it is true, originates with the YPG/PKK, which terribly misunderstood the degree of support it would receive from Russia and the US in a war with Turkey. The Russian tripwire force was removed almost immediately and the US disclaimed all interest and influence.

But the reality is that the US was involved in Afrin: it was largely the responsible for the conditions that created this new conflict by defining its mission so narrowly against IS that it ignored the wider politics of Syria—to the point where even its key objective was impossible.

Contrary to the popular narrative, US actions in Syria, for reasons related to its Iran policy, never included a serious attempt to overthrow the Syrian regime. Indeed, President Barack Obama vetoed dozens of plans specifically designed to remove Assad from power. Washington even continued to recognise Assad as among the representatives of the Syrian people, unlike most European and Arab states. All energy was devoted to IS.

The focus on IS led the US to attempt to conduct a counter-terrorism war in Syria, while insulating itself from the broader conflict, and investing in the YPG as effectively its sole instrument in that endeavour. The harvest is now before us and might well reverse even the anti-IS achievements.

IS retains pockets of territory in its desert sanctuaries along the Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria, where coalition activities have significantly slowed. And core components of the force that is supposed to uproot them have instead been diverted into what could very well be an existential battle with Turkey along the western border.

The Assad regime, as well as the coalition of forces supporting it, namely Iran and Russia, oppose the US’s presence in Syria. While the US buttresses a maximalist version of Rojava, Turkey will remain hostile to its presence and vulnerable to Russia’s attempts to make Ankara its “junior partner” in its Syria policy. Meanwhile, the YPG, always intertwined with the regime coalition, has been getting more deeply integrated with that alliance structure, including the open deployment of Shia militias controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) alongside the YPG in Afrin.

Present trends, then, point towards the US being left alone, physically and politically, isolated from its natural allies, alienating its partners of convenience — both of whom are drifting closer to Iran — and guarding nominal SDF positions from probing attacks by the pro-Assad coalition. This is completely unsustainable, and Turkey’s Afrin operation has opened a potential window for the US policy to regain its footing.

Turkey’s recent claim to have reached a “common understanding” to jointly deploy US and Turkish soldiers in Minbij was premature, but the idea was the right one, recalibrating in the direction of a more balanced US posture between Turkey and the YPG. If the US facilitates the removal of the YPG from west of the Euphrates, it will significantly weaken the regime coalition’s hold over the YPG and reduce the likelihood of the YPG repeating its hand over of areas the US helped liberate to the pro-Assad forces.

In such circumstances, the US would have gained control of its proxy and mollified its NATO ally, positioning itself as a mediator between two partners, as opposed to the current policy that is pushing both towards the Iranian-Russian camp. Such a formula offers a path to the sustainable stability in northern and eastern Syria necessary for keeping the Islamic State defeated, and pulling Turkey away from the pro-Assad coalition and back into the Western fold, a prerequisite if there is ever to be a US policy to push back Iran in the region.

Kyle Orton is a foreign policy analyst. Oved Lobel works at the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Committee