Behind the US's confusing, shifting Syria policy

Women meet in Qamishli in Rojava to discuss security.

After Turkish forces took the previously ISIS-held town of al-Bab on February 23, clashes have intensified in northern Syria between Turkish forces and local proxies occupying an enclave in northern Syria, on one hand, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.

The SDF is an alliance of progressive armed groups — the largest of which are Kurdish-based Peoples Defence Units (YPG) and Women’s Defence Units (YPJ) — that is subordinate to the grassroots democratic structures of the Democratic Federation of North Syria.

The SDF is currently closing in on the Syrian capital of ISIS, Raqqa, while Turkish forces are threatening the SDF-held town of Manbij.

A US-led coalition has been conducting an air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014. In Iraq, where the Western air war is concentrated, the US has been reasonably consistent in regards to identifying local allies — the Iraqi state and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional government (KRG) in the largely Kurdish north.

In Syria, the picture is more confused. The US sees both the SDF and the Turkish state, a NATO member, as its allies in the war against ISIS. This is despite the fact that Turkey is determined to crush the Kurdish-led Rojava Revolution, which the SDF views as its model.  

Free Syria Army

Moreover, while the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Assad and its international backers — Iran and Russia — are fighting ISIS, the West denies diplomatic recognition to the regime. Instead, it supports the Syrian National Council (SNC), a government-in-exile representing most of the feuding, predominantly Islamist armed groups that have been fighting the regime since 2011.

Officially, the SNC’s armed forces are the Free Syrian Army, founded by defectors from Assad’s army who refused the regime’s orders to fire on unarmed protesters during the 2011 uprising. However, the FSA was always a name used by a large number of independent armed groups.

Some FSA units maintained a close relationship to the civilian protest movements while others were increasingly accountable only to themselves. Some degenerated into predatory gangs.

This was one factor in the rise of Islamist groups, who sometimes won passive support from communities who believed — usually mistakenly — that their rule would be less violent and oppressive than degenerated FSA units.

Another factor in the rise of Islamist groups and the splintering of the armed opposition was the support given to them by US allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which reflected those countries’ own ideologies, agendas and rivalries.

The rise of Islamist groups within the opposition caused the US to limit its material aid — crucially, not supplying the opposition with anti-aircraft weaponry to counter the regime’s air force.

US support for the opposition fell short of enabling regime change. However, ongoing war and a divided Syria have served Western aims in the region.

Turkish involvement was initially motivated by the ambitions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to extend Turkish influence. However, after the revolution broke out in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) in Syria’s north in 2012, crushing it became Erdoğan’s preoccupation.

This is because of the Rojava Revolution’s political affinity to the struggle led by the left-wing Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkish Kurdistan and the broader left and democratic opposition in Turkey, represented electorally by the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP).

The rise of ISIS in 2014 was helped by large-scale Turkish material and logistical support, after other groups armed by Turkey had proved ineffective against Rojava. Ironically, given that ISIS was functioning as a proxy for Turkey, the seeming existential threat the organisation posed to the West — exaggerated by both ISIS and Western propaganda — became the pretext for the US-led coalition's air war.

Western intervention

A major motivation for the air war on ISIS was relegitimising Western military interventions in the Middle East. Overthrowing Assad, his use of chemical weapons notwithstanding, had not proved a domestically acceptable pretext for direct Western involvement — either in the US or other major Western powers.

The tactical alliance between the US-led coalition and the SDF followed the success of the YPG and YPJ in resisting ISIS in the siege of Kobanê, which began shortly after the Western coalition's air war.

The alliance was based on the Rojava-based revolutionaries being the only force inside Syria to consistently and successfully fight ISIS. This was in a context where the Obama administration lacked domestic support for deploying ground troops.

The secular, democratic, ethnically inclusive and very feminist politics of the Rojava forces are in line with the West’s official, stated aims for its Middle Eastern military interventions. That the revolution’s anti-capitalist politics contradict the actual aims of Western intervention is reflected in the West continuing to ban the PKK as a terrorist group.

The US gives some support to the SDF while consistently excluding its political representatives — the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD) and the Democratic Federation of North Syria — from international talks on Syria. Instead, the US favours the SNC.

The Rojava forces were denied heavy weapons by the US and blockaded. Yet the US offered coordinated air strikes as substitute for heavy weapons against ISIS armour and artillery.

Turkish partner

In 2015, the US welcomed Turkey as a “partner” in the air war against ISIS, despite the fact that Turkey was providing support to ISIS at the time. Turkish air strikes have mostly targeted the SDF, not ISIS.

Meanwhile, Russia began its own air war in Syria in late 2015, officially against ISIS but in reality more directed at SNC-affiliated and other Islamist groups fighting its allied tottering Assad regime.

A complicated diplomatic game ensued in which both Turkey and the MSD used the antagonism between Russia and the US to leverage both powers. It turn, the US and Russia, who have both hinted at partitioning Syria as a solution to the conflict, have used the antagonism between Turkey and the MSD/SDF to leverage both.

Last year, a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, Iran and, indirectly, the Assad regime was followed by Turkish ground troops invading northern Syria.

In August, after the liberation of Manbij from ISIS by the SDF, Turkish forces — with Syrian auxiliaries under the FSA banner — took the border town of Jarabulus and the surrounding countryside from ISIS without a fight

The US supported the Turkish intervention, politically and with air support, while continuing to give air support to the SDF.

The rapprochement between the Erdoğan regime and Russia also led to Turkey withdrawing militias it supported from Syria’s largest city Aleppo. This led to the capture of east Aleppo by regime forces in December, ending four years of the city being divided in a bloody stalemate.

This has implications for Western policy, as it leaves the SNC as no longer a viable contender for power.

Russian plan

A Russian peace plan appeared to offer the MSD control of areas they currently control. However, MSD statements have become more explicit in emphasising that they oppose partition — and see their model of “democratic self-administration” as a solution for all Syria.

After the Turkish occupation of Jarabulus, al-Bab became a strategic flashpoint. If the SDF took it, it would control the entire border between Rojava and Turkey. Turkish forces moved to prevent this and stop the geographic unification of Rojava.

For the first time, Turkish forces actually fought ISIS. Inside Turkey, ISIS attacks began targeting tourist venues whereas previously they had targeted Erdoğan’s political opponents.

As Assad regime forces advanced on al-Bab from Aleppo to the south, the US told the SDF that they would not support an attack on al-Bab while promising to restrain Turkey and its proxies from attacking Manbij.

The Turkish advance on al-Bab benefited from both US and Russian air strikes, although a Russian air strike also hit Turkish forces in an apparent friendly fire incident. Turkish forces took al-Bab on February 23.

The February 2 Washington Post reported that when leaving office, former President Barack Obama had presented President Donald Trump with a plan to give heavy weapons to the SDF to enable the rapid taking of Raqqa, which Trump delayed enacting.

After the Turkish capture of al-Bab, Turkish leaders and spokespeople for their Syrian proxies said that they would advance on Manbij. In response, the SDF announced that if Turkish forces or their proxies attacked Manbij, the SDF would cease its advance on Raqqa and redeploy its forces from there to Manbij.

On February 24, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that US Central Command head General Joseph Votel had made a secret visit to Syria, apparently to reassure the SDF. SDF spokesperson Talal Silo told AFP that “there were promises of heavy weapons in future stages”.

AFP quoted another “senior source in the SDF” as saying: “Votel confirmed the coalition’s commitment to protecting Manbij from any attacks waged by Turkey or supported by it, as part of its previous commitment to protecting the area.”

On March 1, US commander Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said: “I expect Kurds will participate in the operation in one form or fashion. They are local Syrian Kurds who will participate.”

But he added that they are engaged in discussions with Turkey on how they might participate in the liberation of Raqqa.

Moreover, CNBC reported on February 27 that Trump administration officials were floating the idea of delaying the final assault on Raqqa for months and deploying a 5000-strong US ground force — specifically so they did not have to rely on the SDF to take Raqqa.

Meanwhile, the SDF and the Manbij Military Council — the SDF-affiliated locally based forces — have vowed that Turkish forces will be prevented from taking Manbij regardless of what the US decides.