America's Political Gamble in Syria May Not Pay Off

CH-47F Chinook helicopter in Iraq. Flickr/DVIDSHUB

President Trump’s plan to defeat the Islamic State relies on the complex web of relations between the United States, Turkey and the Kurds.

As the Islamic State’s territory continues to shrink in the Middle East, its henchmen and those inspired by the extremist group are increasingly lashing out at soft targets in the West. The types of attacks recently experienced in London and Manchester are likely to continue until the radical Islamist ideology that justifies and calls for those terrorist tactics is defeated from within. Muslims are required to give their pledge of bay’a (allegiance) to the caliphate if, according to the Sunni criteria, a legitimate caliph such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is found. Its mere existence constitutes the greatest recruitment tool. Therefore, a crucial first step is taking away the territory that ISIS claims for its caliphate because it will lessen the magnetic pull on would-be jihadis.

It brings into focus U.S. efforts to liberate the Islamic State’s self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria, which began Monday. Reflecting the multiethnic composition of the U.S.-backed coalition—despite the overwhelmingly Kurdish participation—their ethnic Turkmen spokesman, Talal Silo, told Reuters the fighting would be fierce “because Daesh (Islamic State) will die to defend their so-called capital.”

The president’s calculated gamble relies on the complex web of relations between the United States, Turkey and the Kurds. The Trump administration has had to engage in some intense wheeling and dealing to build an alliance for that task, requiring some careful wagering and side betting on the great Middle East craps table.

Augmenting military plans drawn up during the Obama administration, President Trump expanded the partnership with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. In October 2015, the United States dispatched a contingent of fifty special operators to help train and support the YPG because the group was identified as the most capable fighter aligned against ISIS. From this effort, the Syrian Democratic Forces were born with the inclusion of some Sunni Arab militias.

Although seen as an ally in Washington, the YPG is considered an enemy in Ankara because of their affiliation with the Kurdistan’s Worker’s Party (PKK), a Turkey-based Marxist-Leninist group also designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. The PKK have waged an insurgency in Turkey for some thirty years.

Finding common ground on Syria between the two NATO allies has long proven elusive. In 2011, President Obama and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for Bashar al-Assad to step down but the United States did little to put any muscle behind the policy.

Obama was focused on bringing home the last American troops from Iraq and lessening the American footprint in the Middle East. For Turkey, the writing was on the wall. When Syria shot down a Turkish aircraft in 2012, Obama backed Russia’s version of events. The message to Ankara was further crystallized when he ignored Turkish evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons months before the issue reached its zenith and when Obama walked away from his own red line in 2013 and invited in the Russians instead. The final nail in that coffin came with Obama’s dogged pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran which allowed Syria to remain in Iran’s sphere of influence.

Erdoğan understood that he was alone if his goal was both regime change in Syria and the prevention of Kurdish gains to his south. As such, mutual half-hearted efforts to find, vet and train a moderate Sunni Arab force never bore fruit.

For his part, the Turkish leader has long played a double game. He allowed the ISIS recruiting pipelines to run through his country and profited from the illicit trade opportunities it presented. As long as ISIS fought against the Kurds and the Assad regime, he saw them more as an asset than a liability. Erdoğan would still like to see Assad go, but after several costly ISIS terrorist attacks in Turkey, he acknowledges that ISIS should also be destroyed—or he understood that for President Trump, regional eradication of the terror group is non-negotiable. Erdoğan is willing to play ball as long as the Kurds are not strengthened physically or geographically.