by Dennis Ross*
Warren Christopher once referred to the war in the Balkans as the problem from hell. It turns out that Syria is the real problem from hell. With half a million dead and 11 million either internally displaced or now refugees outside the country, Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe. If the conflict was not complicated enough, the United States now finds itself caught between Turkey, its NATO ally, and the Syrian People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG. The YPG proved to be the most effective of all the forces fighting ISIS on the ground and rooting them out of their Syria strongholds, including Raqqa. The problem, of course, is that Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK—a Kurdish party/organization that is on the US terrorism list and against whom Turkey has waged a long war.
President Erdogan is not wrong that the YPG is closely connected with the PKK. And, he understandably fears that a contiguous Kurdish area along Turkey’s border with Syria could provide safe haven for the PKK, giving its forces a secure operational space from which to carry out terror attacks in Turkey. And, yet for the Trump administration, with ISIS down but not completely defeated, it is reluctant to jettison the YPG, particularly because it constitutes the real boots on the ground helping to ensure that ISIS cannot rise out of the ashes.
It is one thing for Turkey to attack Afrin, a Kurdish dominated area that is largely isolated and separated from the other Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria where the US is present with the YPG. It is something else if Turkey attacks Manbij; US forces may not be there in large numbers but they are there. Erdogan may be trying to coerce us into leaving this area so Turkey can widen its zone in Syria and end the prospect of the Kurds being able to create a contiguous dominated region along Turkey’s southern border.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to reassure Turkey that we understand its concerns, but his effort to date has not succeeded. Moreover, this new crisis comes a week after Tillerson presented a US strategy for Syria. While any strategy for Syria is certain to be bedeviled by the conflicting forces and alliances in what is a continuing war, the one essential point the Secretary of State was making is that the US forces in Syria—numbering about 1500—must remain for the time-being. He said they were essential to ensure that ISIS could not re-emerge—explaining that the US left Iraq too early and that created a vacuum that ISIS was able to fill. In his words, “We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria. ISIS presently has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two.”
But his justification for a continuing, if small US military presence in Syria, while largely tied to sealing ISIS’s fate once and for all, was also guided by several other concerns: to thwart al-Qaeda, which still has a presence in northwestern Syria; to deny Assad the ability to “restore” himself and “continue his brutal treatment of his own people;” and to help pave the way after the defeat of ISIS “for legitimate local civil authorities to exercise responsible governance of their liberated areas.”
In addition, he added that “US disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria.” In other words, the US military presence is designed to help serve multiple purposes, including countering the Iranians.
The aims that the Secretary outlined are the right ones. The question is whether the administration is prepared to use the means needed to achieve these objectives. Stabilization is essential for governance but also requires reconstruction—and that requires monies which the Trump Administration evinces little enthusiasm in providing. Denying Assad the ability to restore himself or preventing the Iranians from further strengthening their position in Syria requires more than words. Assad has already proven he is prepared to destroy the country rather than give up power—and now thanks to the Russians and Iranians he is secured in power and is retaking parts of the country that had been lost. Will the Russians forsake him? There is little sign of that. Along with the Europeans, our unwillingness to provide reconstruction monies so long as Assad is in power is likely to have little practical effect on Assad or Putin. The only thing that will affect Putin is seeing that there is a cost in supporting Assad or Iranian/Shia expansion in Syria—and that won’t happen unless Putin sees that the US is prepared to use its superior air forces to blunt the further development of Iran’s military infrastructure or Shia militia presence.
Perhaps, Putin could also be persuaded to use his leverage to limit the Iranians if he understands that it might trigger a major escalation involving the Israelis should the developing Iranian military infrastructure become too threatening. The Trump administration should certainly be communicating to the Russians that Iran’s expansion in Syria could trigger an escalating conflict that could spread and see the Russians end up paying a price. Yes, Russia has significant presence in Syria and is an arbiter of what happens—but it could also end up being involved in a conflict that it has little interest in seeing erupt.
Here again, we see the complicated landscape in Syria. The Tillerson strategy speech laid out why we have a stake in what is unfolding in Syria and American hopes for Syria’s future. Whether we will apply the means necessary to affect the Russian calculus or Iran’s behavior remains an open question.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.