Turkey’s attack on Kurds in Syria reveals weak U.S. position there

With peace talks leading nowhere and Russia gaining ground, the U.S. is left with few options in post-ISIS Syria.

A relative mourns during the funeral ceremony of two people killed by rocket fire in Kilis, a town close to the Syrian border on January 25, 2018.  CREDIT: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images.
A relative mourns during the funeral ceremony of two people killed by rocket fire in Kilis, a town close to the Syrian border on January 25, 2018. CREDIT: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images.

The United States is in a pretty tough spot in Syria — one from which there seems no clear path forward. The U.N.-brokered Syrian peace talks — the ninth round of such talks so far — kicked off in Geneva on Thursday, and, as Reuters reports, “Few expect a breakthrough,” at the two-day event.

Those talks, wrote Syria analyst Sam Heller, are “unworkable” but must limp on largely because, “quitting Geneva would entail its own political costs. And ongoing aimless talks are a relatively low-impact way to trip up Russia and deny legitimacy to a Russian political solution that the United States considers pernicious.”

So if Geneva can offer no one — least of all the United States — a clear path ahead in Syria, then what will?

Here are where things stand: With the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) on the back foot, the United States does not have a clear mission in Syria, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, with support from Iran and Russia, have been consistently gaining ground for the past couple of years.

The United States’ key ally in the country, the Kurds in the town of Afrin, are now being pummeled by another U.S. and NATO ally, Turkey, which has played a key role in the Syrian civil war, providing border security and housing 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Turkey says it’s attacking Afrin because it wants to eliminate any kind of Kurdish command there; Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim said that the target of the strikes is ISIS (which is not presently there), as well as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — both of which the Turkish government views as terrorist groups, even though the YPG is not active in Turkey.

Making things harder is the fact that the United States has few friends in the region — President Donald Trump has been provoking Iran (by trying to unravel the 2015 nuclear agreement) and Lebanon (calling Hezbollah a “menace” to the country and the region).

Jeff Kubiak, senior fellow at Arizona State University’s Center on the Future of War, told ThinkProgress that there are “no good outcomes” for the United States in Syria.

“There are a couple of different possibilities, some of them more or less untenable in the current political environment,” said Kubiak, who is also a retired Air Force colonel. One option is for the United States to position itself as part of a post-ISIS peacekeeping mission with international — possibly U.N. — support.

“We might need to think of ways to keep things bit chaotic,” said Kubiak, who emphasized that he wasn’t advocating for this “war-mongering” strategy.

“Stability is maybe not the goal — thinking outside the box — maybe chaos, quite frankly, is the reasonable thing for us to do,” he said,  short of getting some sort of international legitimacy — from beyond the region — for the United States’ presence in Syria, which will not happen.

This is a more accessible strategy while ISIS is still somewhat present in Syria.

“But its position is reduced so dramatically, that unless you’ve got a compelling story that keeps ISIS on the front burner, it’s going to be difficult to domestically support U.S. presence in the area. So you basically have to find a target that keeps moving,” he said.

But this chaos can only be temporary — the U.S. has already stated that it will stay in Syria indefinitely, with the Syrian government seeing this as an act of aggression.

“When you’re the lesser power in a strategic situation, your goal is to buy time — you need to stay viable in some fashion, until something changes that gives you a break,” he said. If the United States can hang on long enough, one of the neighboring governments might give it the space to operate, perhaps out of security concerns.

“Sometimes you have to create a little instability to create conditions that might work out and prevent a bloodbath in the end,” he said.

Last fall, the United States threw the Iraqi Kurds — who also helped in the fight against ISIS there — under the bus when it failed to recognize the legitimacy of their independence referendum and sided with Baghdad in the service of keeping Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in power.

Doing so again, said Kubiak, would “be a betrayal” that would destroy whatever leverage power the United States has with the Kurds in not only Syria, but Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, as well.

“At this point in time, our negotiating power seems pretty weak … with regards to the Turks, who seem to be snuggling up even closer to the Russians, which makes our lives more difficult,” he said, adding that if he had to wager, he’d bet that “the Turks, the Syrians, and the Iranians, and potentially the Iraqis will have their way with the Kurds.”

Indeed, the two countries can’t even coordinate the spin on the first conversation between their presidents since Turkey started firing on Kurdish targets in Syria over the weekend. The call, which took place on Wednesday between Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan may or may not have “relayed concerns that escalating violence in Afrin, Syria, risks undercutting [U.S. and Turkish] shared goals in Syria.” The State Department claims Trump expressed such concerns, but Turkey flat-out denies it.

The Pentagon has called the Turkish operation “not helpful” on Thursday and confirmed that Turkey had also asked U.S. forces to leave Manbij — an aggressive extension of its campaign in Syria.

Pulling out of Syria would essentially cede some key territory in the region to Iran and Russia.

Plus, Kubiak points out that leaving would “forgo any influence we might have in the region at all,” he said, adding that U.S. presence might prompt the kind of international pressure needed to keep human rights violations in check as the dust starts to settle in the viciously divided country.