By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
*A version of this was published at The Jerusalem Post
US President Donald Trump wants to end what he has called “endless wars” but he increasingly faces hurdles in Syria because US policy is running up against the reality that once you get into a conflict, it’s hard to get out. The US-led coalition and its Syrian Democratic Forces partners on the ground defeated ISIS this year in March, but the ISIS threat still exists and Turkey has said it will launch an operation into eastern Syria in areas where the US and its partners are present, potentially leading to instability and more refugees. In the after ISIS period this could lead to a new round of conflict or end with a complex compromise.
The problem for the US in Syria, which Trump vowed to withdraw from in December 2018, is that it got into Syria to defeat ISIS but now faces challenges from, Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime and Turkey, the latter of which is supposed to be a US ally. All these countries oppose the US presence for different reasons. The Syrian regime opposes the US because it doesn’t want America empowering local forces and appearing to harm its “sovereignty.” Russia opposes the US because Moscow supports the Syrian regime, but also because Moscow wants to see US influence weakened. Russia has condemned the US role in Raqqa, arguing the city has not been rebuilt since it was liberated in 2017, and slammed the US role in Tanf, a desert base, accusing the US of training militants and harming Syrian infrastructure, even stealing oil.
Iran’s opposition to the US is clear historically and Iran wants to undermine the US role in Iraq, while not provoking a conflict with Washington. Yet the US has sanctioned the IRGC, which is active in Syria, and the US has condemned Iran’s role in Syria. Iran understands that the US in Syria poses a challenge to their decision to carve out influence in Syria and a corridor of Iranian power that stretches from the border of Albukamal to Damascus.
Lastly, Turkey is concerned about the US role because Turkey believes the SDF are an umbrella group that contains the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington view as a terrorist group. From Ankara’s perspective there are questions about why the US would support terrorists along Turkey’s southern border. A Turkey-PKK ceasefire fell apart in 2015 and Turkey has fought against the PKK in cities in eastern Turkey and also through airstrikes in northern Iraq and through the invasion of Afrin in Northwest Syria in January 2018. Turkey wants to totally destroy the PKK and all its affiliates. It has launched airstrikes against Yazidi members of the PKK in Sinjar and against a PKK camp near Makhmur. It seeks a total war across the region against anyone linked to the group. As such eastern Syria is a target.
But Turkey has a hurdle in the presence of US forces. For years Ankara has threatened an operation. It increased rhetoric last fall and its rhetoric is not just about launching a military operation, but about giving Syria to its “true owners” as the Turkish President said on December 12. Who are the “true owners”?
This is not spelled out, but Turkey has said it wants to help mostly Arab refugees who fled Syria during the ISIS war return to Syria. This already resulted in demographic change in Afrin, changing a historically Kurdish area into one that is more Arab. 167,000 mostly Kurds fled Afrin in 2018, and Turkish media says 150,000 Syrians went into Afrin, but they are apparently not the same people who fled, leading to concerns about whether a Turkish operation in eastern Syria would be another repeat of Afrin. Ankara doesn’t view the operation this way, claiming that it merely wants to create a “peace” corridor along its border and remove “terrorists.” On August 4 Turkey told the US and Russia it would launch an operation.
This has sent the US scrambling. Since January the US has been trying to work on a “safe zone” concept with Turkey that would allow some kind of international force to patrol the border inside Syria. But it was never clear what this plan entailed because US envoy James Jeffrey was always tightlipped about what the US really thought would occur. Most recently he said “”The Turks want a deeper zone than the one that we think makes sense. In our case, it’s between 5 & 14 kilometers with heavy weapons drawn further back & there are some disagreements or some differences of opinion I would say… I wouldn’t put as much emphasis on this – on how we, the U.S. and the Turks, would operate in that zone. But we’re willing to work with them on this. We think that this is a deal that we can sell to the people of northeast Syria. That’s very important.”
This is a tightrope for Washington because the US knows that if the US appears to abandon the SDF and hand over part of eastern Syria to Turkey that the SDF will seek support for the Syrian regime to prevent towns and cities it fought to liberate from ISIS from ending up run by Turkish soldiers or Syrian rebel forces. That would create a crises in eastern Syria as the Syrian regime rushes to secure areas and as Turkey seeks to work with Russia to get approval for another Afrin-style operation, leaving US forces marooned and with no real function, a fait accompli for Washington, ending years of Syria policy in disgrace.
The US also knows that its plans for “stabilization” in eastern Syria are not going well. The precarious situation in Syria is such that stabilizing the area after the ISIS war requires cash, but in 2018 most of the investment the US envisioned was not forthcoming. Washington went hat in hand to Riyadh and several hundred million was supposed to arrive. But Trump’s decision to leave left the fate of the cash up in the air, as the US tinkered to turn 2,000 troops into 200 in eastern Syria, while asking the UK, France and others to send troops. So far the UK and France seem willing only to send a token. Germany rejected US requests. Turkey knows it has influence over the UK and Germany and that it can pressure these countries regarding any decision to commit to a framework Ankara rejects. Amid Brexit the UK will need Turkey, maybe more than Turkey needs the UK.
Turkey is determined to go it alone if its last minute demands of the US are not met. Turkey’s officials have told its leading media, Anadolu, Daily Sabah and others, this message. US envoy James Jeffrey is looking into the abyss as he looks at a year of work perhaps going down the drain. He was appointed in August 2018. Now Turkey is the one making the demands: The US must beflexible. The US has warned that there could be 15,000 ISIS fighters still at large in Syria. Hakki Ocal at Daily Sabah said this was a scare tactic, and anyway the Turkish officers in the tanks on the border are ready to go into Syria regardless.
Trump has another message. He warned European countries over the weekend to take back their thousands of citizens who are being held in eastern Syria and who were previously ISIS supporters captured during the war. They could be released, he warned, someone needs to take responsibility. If there is a conflict as Turkey moves into eastern Syria, and the regime and Russia and everyone scrambles, the increasing threat of ISIS sleeper cells and the thousands of former ISIS members, would indeed be a threat. Already they are described as a ticking time bomb. Already there are dozens of attacks a month by ISIS sleeper cells in eastern Syria.
Turkey could be blustering. It has done this before to get what it wants. Telling the US that it will launch an operation and leaking stories about wanting the coordinates of US units, ostensibly so those units would be hit in an operation, may be more rhetoric than reality. Will the US air force really open up the skies of eastern Syria to a Turkish military operation of the sort that took place in Afrin? The US knows that this would be humiliating, to see its partners run to Damascus and sign a deal, and see the Russians demanding entrance to eastern Syria, while the US is poised to withdraw, or try to hang on to some canton in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Not how the US wants the Syrian involvement to end. And for Trump, that is the major Syria problem.
Seth J. Frantzman is the author of ‘After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East’ available now at Amazon.com