US policy in Syria: A house of cards

The US may have to go back to the drawing board for its Syria policy if it forces Turkey into another operation in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey had told the US and Russia about Turkey’s planned unilateral military operation into northeast Syria to secure Turkey’s borders from the PKK/YPG terror group.

Shortly after, a US delegation presented an offer to Ankara in a last-ditch attempt to convince the Turkish side on a ‘safe-zone’. It seems, however, that the US offer does not address Turkey’s security concerns and national interests, and the Turkish President repeated Turkey’s ambitions to launch a military operation.

On the American side, the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that unilateral Turkish actions are unacceptable. Washington’s Syria strategy relies on the assumption that it can outmanoeuvre and deceive Turkey – but the upcoming Turkish operation could mark an end to the house of cards that is US policy in Syria. To placate Turkey, the US will need to revisit its Syria policy and convince Turkey not to go into Syria.

When the Obama administration expanded its anti-Daesh air campaign into Syria and planned to partner with local forces, Washington explicitly wanted to avoid being dragged into the war between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime.

In this regard, the US found the Syrian branch of the PKK, the YPG, as a suitable partner. It was ready to fight Daesh under US air cover and had no active confrontation with the Assad regime. However, this strategy entirely ignored Turkey’s decades-long war against the PKK. While the US was keen to avoid a clash with Bashar al Assad, it seemed to have no issues supporting a national security threat to its NATO partner.

In a bit to ease tensions with Ankara, the US repeatedly argued that its engagement with the YPG is temporary, tactical, and transitional focusing only on eradicating Daesh. Despite Turkey’s criticism that one terror group can’t be used to fight another, the US pressed ahead.

Washington’s commitment to the YPG has remained, and the Pentagon has repeatedly invested in its partner in Syria as part of its ‘Train and Equip Fund’ to the tune of  $1.48 billion of US taxpayer money. From the single aim of defeating Daesh, the US expanded its ambitions to limiting Iran, preventing Daesh to re-emerge and forcing Assad to change his behaviour.

The US has consistently tried to finesse the world and Turkey in regards to the true nature of its partners in Syria. The US has long denied the links between the PKK and its Syrian branch despite official American reports listing the YPG as such, and the reality is that the US has sided with a terrorist organisation, as designated by its laws.

As a second step, the US invested in the project of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) portraying it as an ethnically and politically diverse alliance, but in reality, the SDF only functioned as cover for the PKK.

Currently, the head of the SDF is Ferhat Abdi Shahin, who calls himself Mazlum Abdi Kobane, a PKK veteran.

Trying to hide the fact that PKK veterans from the Qandil Mountains dominate the SDF’s command structure, the US introduced them as a ‘reliable ally’.

The US has gone back on several assurances it has previously made to Turkey. After Turkey declared the Euphrates as a red line, the US convinced Turkey to allow the YPG to pass towards Manbij promising that after its capture, the YPG would leave. The YPG didn’t leave Manbij, and Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield that prevented the YPG from connecting all of its cantons across the Turkish-Syrian border.

Later, Ankara and Washington agreed upon the Manbij Roadmap which still has not been implemented. Then when the US wanted to free Raqqa from Daesh, both NATO partners discussed conducting a joint operation, but while negotiations were taking place, CENTCOM officials on the ground prepared for an operation together with the YPG, rejected the Turkish offer, and went for Raqqa with the YPG which turned out to be devastating for Raqqa.

Lastly, Trump announced the US withdrawal from Syria, but the decision was later revisited, and the US hasn’t gone anywhere. Based on the offer of a 32-kilometre safe zone, Turkish and American delegations started to negotiate, but the US delegation ignored the US president’s proposal and insisted on a smaller safe zone with no Turkish control.

For half a decade now, Turkey and the US have been driven further apart from each other. The US has built a house of cards based on the assumption that they can string  Turkey along long enough to create facts on the ground that Turkey would have to accept despite its national security concerns.

Depending on what the US offers Turkey this around, Turkey will be looking to bring down the house of cards that the US Syria policy is built upon. Any military operation by Turkey will likely force the Americans to go back to the drawing board.

The climb-down may already be in motion as the threat of a unilateral military operation may have forced the US to come closer to the Turkish demands as Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar declared today that the US had taken a step towards the Turkish position in the negotiations.

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