How U.S. Policy Almost Ended Up Fighting Itself in Syria

How U.S. Policy Almost Ended Up Fighting Itself in Syria

The Turkish invasion exposed the contradictions of America's Syrian approach.

Whether the calm between SDF and Turkey will hold is unclear. The SDF forces in Manbij now consist mostly of the Shams al-Shamal brigade, according to Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a journalist and expert following developments there. But the Turks will not accept a ceasefire with the YPG, whom they consider terrorists.

The American policy on Syria has overlapping concerns. Its Syrian rebel allies oppose Assad but they also oppose the Kurds because they believe the Kurds undermine a “unified” Syria. Turkey opposes the YPG because it views it as the same as PKK ,which it is at war with, and Turkey is close to Syrian rebel groups. The Syrian regime also opposed the YPG’s initiatives and has clashed with them, but is not in open conflict with the Kurds. For the United States, whose priority is the war on ISIS, the Kurds are an essential ally on the ground tactically, but the Turks and the Iran deal are major strategic concerns that override who controls which village near Manbij.

There is ample evidence that the DoD has been in competition with the CIA to find viable partners and that the DoD has been more successful in its relationship with the Kurds and SDF, who are far more effective than the plethora of Syrian rebel groups. A U.S. intelligence official told the Daily Beast recently that “the defeat of Assad is a necessary precondition to ultimately defeat ISIS.” The program to try to get Syrian rebel forces to fight ISIS was a complete disaster, as the rebel groups also view Assad as a priority, not ISIS.

The risk the United States faces is alienating the Kurds and seeing the SDF salient in Manbij collapse. This will set back U.S. plans to launch a strike on Raqqa and cut off the head of the ISIS snake. The United States has been encouraging YPG to move towards Raqqa before; now with problems in Manbij, trying to get it to focus on that will be problematic. The Turkish intervention in Jarabulus will bolster the rebel forces, but it will complicate the next steps against ISIS.

Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a PhD from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Image: A Turkish tank. Turkish Armed Forces photo via Flickr.