Eastern Syria: Overcoming the ‘Original Sin’

Celebrations accompanying the forthcoming military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) in Syria east of the Euphrates River will fall somewhere between muted and absent. A three-year campaign to neutralize a criminal gang is ending on an abysmally low note: an escalating bilateral crisis between two NATO allies. What happened? Is it fixable?

When it took office one year ago, the Trump administration was obliged to try to make the most of the catastrophic Syria policy bequest of its predecessor. It is still trying to do so.

In western Syria, the Obama administration elected to leave the Syrian population absolutely unprotected from a homicidal regime. This was a disastrous decision driven by the erroneous belief that Iran would not sign a nuclear deal if the United States tried to complicate the murderous survival strategy of Tehran’s client: Bashar al-Assad. The consequences for Syrians, their neighbors, and American allies in Western Europe were horrible. And they were entirely gratuitous.

In eastern Syria, the Obama administration elected to confront the ISIS phenomenon in slow motion and on the cheap. In the wake of the Kobani siege of late 2014, the administration drifted into a relationship with the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), a militia affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), an organization deemed terrorist by Washington and Ankara.

The YPG—later expanded with non-Kurdish personnel to become the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—became the Syrian ground force combat component of the anti-ISIS coalition. The alternative to relying on Syrian Kurds and a Kurdish-dominated militia would have been for the United States to take the lead in building a professional ground force coalition of the willing to kill ISIS in Syria. Implementing that alternative would not have been easy. Although some regional powers volunteered to place forces under American command to neutralize ISIS, American “skin in the game” and casualties would have been inescapable.

By relying on Kurdish militiamen, however, a phony “caliph” and a gang of murderers, thieves, and rapists have been able to hold forth in Syria for over three years after having been beaten at Kobani. They have used that time diabolically: ruling a captive population with a methodology familiar to an Assad regime with which ISIS had a mainly live-and-let-live relationship; and mounting murderous terror operations abroad, in Turkey and Western Europe. Having militiamen run these hoodlums to ground in the complex urban environment of Raqqa—instead of giving the job to military professionals—inevitably increased collateral damage and civilian deaths.

For the Obama administration, this was war on the cheap. Commentators tempted to cast the anti-ISIS operation in Syria in positive terms as the new and economical way the United States wages war—using indigenous forces advised by Americans in the background—ought to calculate the costs as well. Even if Washington had been able to identify an irregular “partner force” not affiliated with a terrorist organization targeting a NATO ally, could the damage to Syrian civilians and American allies arising from a leisurely three-year “degrade and destroy” exercise featuring non-professionals still be justified?

Beyond giving ISIS in Syria all of three years to do its worst, sleep-walking into a relationship with the YPG has had dire foreign policy consequences that threaten to worsen considerably as Ankara targets the Kurdish militia in northwestern Syria. This observation is not intended to connote a lack of sympathy for Kurdish national aspirations or an absence of respect for the bravery exhibited by Syrian-Kurdish militiamen in the battle against ISIS. It is nevertheless beyond regret that the Obama administration subordinated—whether unconsciously or deliberately—an important NATO relationship to its desire to wage war on the cheap in eastern Syria.

Neither is this criticism aimed at exculpating Ankara. Did Turkey offer positive alternatives to the YPG from the beginning of the battle against ISIS in Syria? Has Ankara left no stone unturned in trying to revive a once-promising peace process with the PKK? Did Ankara carefully consider Russian motives in stepping aside and clearing the airspace for Turkey’s incursion into the Afrin district? Before obliging armed Syrian opposition forces to join it in the Afrin campaign, did Ankara consider the negative effects of Syrian Arab-Syrian Kurdish combat on the ability of Arabs and Kurds to build cooperatively a civilized system of governance in a united post-Assad Syria? Is Turkey prepared now to assist the anti-ISIS coalition in stabilizing and securing non-Kurdish areas of predominantly Arab eastern Syria?

There is plenty of blame to go around for a bilateral relationship gone south, and Kurds are to be excused if they fear abandonment by all concerned. The ‘original sin’ in all of this resides in the decision of the Obama administration to wage war against ISIS in Syria the way it did, with a Kurdish and later Kurdish-dominated partner force affiliated with the PKK. Developments and trends in Turkish domestic politics have deepened the consequences of a bad American decision and elevated the prospects of a bilateral meltdown and a NATO crisis: prospects warmly welcome in the Kremlin.

The Trump administration inherited a dog’s breakfast in Syria. But one year in, it owns it all. In western Syria the challenge of protecting civilians from a homicidal regime addicted to chemicals and other loathsome tools of terror remains in place. In eastern Syria the challenge of stabilizing a liberated area looms large. Perhaps there is still the possibility of a professional ground force coalition-of-the-willing—including Turkey and others—stabilizing and securing much of eastern Syria. Yet if Washington and Ankara fail to make maximum efforts to restore mutual confidence and bilateral cooperation, the consequences of the ‘original sin’ at the root of this crisis will far transcend Syria.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Empty shells are seen next to Turkish army tanks on the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas