How U.S. Policy Almost Ended Up Fighting Itself in Syria
“Let me be clear, I have no idea what I’m doing,” read a meme posted online mocking Barack Obama on August 31. It was shared among supporters of the People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish group that has been fighting ISIS for two years in northeastern Syria. They were angry and accused the United States of “betraying” Kurdish forces and supporting a Turkish intervention that has now clashed with the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces between Jarabulus and Manbij.
In the puzzle that is Syria, with its plethora of different groups fight against Bashar al-Assad, with Iranian and Hezbollah proxies allied with Assad, and the areas dominated by ISIS and Kurdish forces, the Turkish intervention around the city of Jarabulus has added a new element to a complex web of competing groups. For American policymakers it presents a particular problem because the United States is a close ally of Turkey and has worked with some Sunni Syrian rebel groups over the last four years. At the same time the United States has also cultivated a close, and very successful, relationship with the YPG in its war against ISIS. So how did America get to the point where its policy was described as “U.S.-backed Turkish offensive in Syria targets U.S.-backed Kurds”?
The origins of the conflict lie in the fact that the United States has two policies in Syria. Initially the U.S. policy was designed to support the opposition to the Assad regime. In Geneva in February 2014 John Kerry said the Assad regime was obstructing the peace process. “The opposition demonstrated a courageous and mature seriousness of purpose…they put forward a viable and well-reasoned roadmap for the creation of a transitional government body.” Viewing Assad as having lost the legitimacy to govern, the United States sought to work with “viable Sunni opposition groups,” as Hillary Clinton described them in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in November 2015.
The United States has cycled through a series of rebel groups that it hoped would help shore up “moderate” opposition to Assad. One group called Hazzm collapsed in March of 2015 after a year. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said its failure would “have an impact on the moderate opposition’s capabilities in the north.” Newsweek accused “U.S.-backed rebels” of fighting “alongside al-Qaeda,” a claim that dogged U.S. support for groups and its attempts at vetting those such as Division 13 and Fursan al-Haq.
With the rise of ISIS in 2014 and its victories in Syria, capturing Palmyra in May of 2015, the United States shifted focus to battling the ISIS threat. Assad was no longer the priority and thoughts at removing him were shelved. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee General Lloyd Austin claimed only “four or five” U.S.-trained fighters were battling ISIS in September 2015.
At this point Defense Department, CIA and State Department policies began to diverge, and the Defense Department began to see the Kurdish YPG and its effective fight against ISIS as the best partner for the anti-ISIS coalition forces. If we look back at the fall of 2015 with the Russian intervention in Syria and the end of the ceasefire in Turkey between the PKK and the government, there was a clear transition point. The Syrian rebels were hard-pressed, and Turkey began openly saying that the YPG and PKK are both the same terrorist group in its eyes. The U.S.-YPG relationship was condemned by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In a June 2015 speech at the Ankara chamber of commerce he claimed “the West, which has shot Arabs and Turkmens, is unfortunately placing the PYD [the political wing of the YPG] and the PKK in lieu of them.” In December 2015 Kurdish forces captured Tishreen dam on the Euphrates, furthering angering the Turks who made it clear to the United States that the Euphrates was a “red line,” not to be crossed by the YPG.
In the spring of 2016, Syrian rebel group Fursan al-Haq, which had been reported as backed by the CIA, clashed with the YPG near the Kurdish area of Afrin. The L.A. Times reported that “Syrian militias armed by different parts of the U.S. war machine” were clashing. This gave too much credit to the “war machine,” whose influence was much diminished in that area. But this clash should have been the first sign of what was to come in Jarabulus.
Turkey’s relations with Syrian rebel groups were more effective than the United States, and it supported them to effect around Kilis, saving some groups from collapsing. However, after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November of 2015, there was real concern that any intervention might spark a war, and it wanted air cover for any operation. Instead Turkey began to seal its border with concrete blocks and supported rebels with artillery fire to move east from Kilis towards Jarabulus to close off the ninety kilometers of border where ISIS was active. At the other end of the border was Jarabulus on the Euphrates.