America's Distracted Syria Policy Is on the Rocks

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are seen in Maryamayn in eastern Afrin, Syria March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

The United States now faces a crisis of confidence in Syria.

American prevarication in the Afrin conflict has led to a crisis in Syria. The United States now risks the worst of both worlds, as it tries to balance its policy in Syria between support for its anti-ISIS partners in eastern Syria and its longtime Turkish ally. In attempts to hedge between the two, policymakers have given mixed signals to both. This has resulted in the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) losing confidence in the United States, and in encouraging Ankara’s openly hostile remarks against U.S. policy and interests. As Washington’s policy weakens and seems uncertain, Russia and the regime in Damascus have gotten exactly what they wanted. Turkey, Syria and Russia saw the conflict in Afrin as a symbol, and each has closely watched for Washington’s next move as the Turkish offensive has unfolded since January 20. Now, as the conflict appears to wind down, the United States needs to shore up its allies and partners.

Turkey began planning its operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin months ago, in 2017. Afrin is a mountainous region located in northwestern Syria and is mostly populated by Kurds. It was at peace over the years of Syrian conflict, but Turkey claimed that Kurdish forces partnered with the United States wanted to link up with Afrin from eastern Syria. From Manbij, which the SDF controls, Afrin is only eighty miles to the west. The YPG is part of the SDF, but Turkey sees the YPG as connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it views as terrorists. “We will not leave the separatist organization in peace in both Iraq and Syria,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in August 2017. He said Turkey would “drain the swamp.” As Turkish armored columns and artillery were positioned near Afrin in January, Ankara watched Washington’s moves carefully. On January 17, three days before the operation, Turkish media highlighted that the U.S.-led coalition had said Afrin was not part of the coalition’s operational area. Turkey’s Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan flew to Moscow the same day to meet the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.

Turkey closely coordinated its Afrin operation with Moscow because it wanted to assure that Syrian air defense would not be operational. Through all this the United States was silent, even as leaders in the Kurdish YPG reached out to their American contacts, according to sources I spoke with. Four days after the offensive began, U.S. president Donald Trump spoke with Erdoğan. Trump urged Turkey to “deescalate” and “limit” its operations. He also warned of any actions that “might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.” These were tough words for what the United States affirms is a NATO ally. But Washington has sought to play a “good-cop, bad-cop” routine with Ankara. National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster spoke to Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s spokesman, two days after the Trump call, on January 26. Turkey claimed that “it was emphasized that Turkey’s legitimate security concerns must be paid attention to. It was agreed that close coordination would be carried out in order to avoid misunderstandings.”

Since January, the United States has abdicated responsibility in Afrin. After voicing initial concerns, Washington has done nothing publicly to restrain Ankara. On March 11, Turkish forces were within a mile of the city of Afrin. Kurds warn of a humanitarian disaster. There is silence, meanwhile, in Moscow and Damascus about the crisis. Damascus has used the last months to increase its attacks on eastern Ghouta near Damascus and consolidate gains near Idlib. Because Turkey has been using Syrian rebel forces against the Kurds in Afrin, Damascus has rightly read that the Syrian rebels are now distracted. It has exploited U.S. confusion over the Afrin crisis to its benefit.