Washington faces a junction in Syria. The administration has been reticent to announce a new policy in eastern Syria. The U.S. role there is now unprecedented. The U.S. sent forces to Syria to fight ISIS, found remarkable allies and now finds itself helping to protect an area of a country. Washington is more comfortable working with governments than entities such as the SDF. This is made more complicated by the fact that Turkey, a historic ally, opposes the U.S. role. The United States also faces the difficulty of weighing the desires of the locals it works with and its larger policy. It saw how frayed this can be in northern Iraq where it spurned its allies in the Kurdistan region to work more closely with Baghdad. This, despite the fact that Baghdad’s major political parties are close to Tehran, which the current U.S. policy ostensibly opposes. Pragmatic and cynical voices will encourage the same approach to Turkey, working with Turkey even as Turkey drifts closer to Russia. Already the SDF is skeptical of the United States after watching Turkey takeover Afrin where the Kurdish YPG had been in control until January.
The last part of the Syrian conflict will be the diplomatic level. The U.S. invested in the Geneva process which has led nowhere while Russia invested in the Astana process which has resulted in a series of de-escalation agreements. By doing so Russia was able to cut the United States out of negotiations on the future of Syria by working only with Iran and Turkey. This means that the U.S. role in eastern Syria is conducted in a vacuum without a diplomatic track or a track that combines diplomacy and military affairs. Ideally the United States has to settle on a policy that combines its anti-ISIS program with its policy on Iran with a new mission in eastern Syria.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.