By Matt Cohen
In northwestern Syria, the small Kurdish enclave of Afrin is quickly becoming the setting of an international showdown between the United States and Turkey. The prospect of such a faceoff has been speculated on since the territorial degradation of ISIS given the need to both secure liberated ISIS territory and support the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), one of the most effective anti-ISIS forces. But it was the U.S. announcement of a 30,000-person Border Security Force, dominated by the Kurdish YPG, that initiated Turkish aggression and placed the two NATO allies on a collision course.
“Operation Olive Branch,” Turkey’s ironically named initiative, threatens not only the Kurdish held Afrin but also areas to the east such as Manbij, where hundreds of American troops are garrisoned. In response, U.S. Defense Department spokesman, Eric Pahon, commented that the American announcement of a Kurdish unit was a big misunderstanding; that despite the name “Border Security Force,” it is not “a new ‘army’ or conventional ‘border guard’ force.” That is a tough sell to Turkey where the Kurdish YPG is viewed as no different than the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group in Turkey as well as the U.S. Turkish President Erdogan, further enflamed the situation by threatening to continue pushing east “until no terrorist is left until our border with Iraq.” Such harsh rhetoric conveys the rot present in the Turkish-U.S. relationship and the constant balance the U.S. tries to reach between its Kurdish and Turkish allies. As the situation develops, it looks increasingly likely that tensions will continue to heat up between the major powers, potentially delivering Donald Trump’s first foreign policy crisis and an intra-NATO crisis at the same time.
But is the situation in Afrin a product of bad American branding or an over-zealous Turkey?
Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council, who has written extensively on this issue, suggested that the Border Security Force is merely an unfortunate rebranding of a training program that the U.S. had already planned to carry out for the Kurdish YPG. The 30,000 troops were going to be trained anyway. It was the announcement of the unit’s title that sent this situation into a tailspin. But it is no wonder the Turks are so irritated. President Erdogan could never accept a Kurdish militia group unified in such a public manner, massed near the border, and within striking distance of the Turkish heartland – the Turkish reprisal is a realistic reaction given the realities on the ground. President Erdogan’s public support for the Afrin incursion is high, and he knows that Trump is both extremely unpopular and inexperienced in nuanced foreign policy decision-making. Erdogan is understandably confident that he can achieve his goals.
For the United States, the Border Security Force appears to be a means of extracting itself from Syria while ensuring territory won from ISIS does not fall into the hands of another group antagonistic to the U.S. The rollback of American presence has been a pattern for months and though clumsily named, the American transgression here is one of passivity, reflective of the U.S. trying to get out of Syria, not stay there. Setting up a force capable of controlling the territory left by ISIS is absolutely necessary to achieve these aims, but there is little appetite for conflict with Turkey. For example, in late November, the White House confirmed that the U.S. would stop supplying the Kurdish YPG militias with weapons, and, according to an Erdogan spokesperson, on January 27, H.R. McMaster reconfirmed the administration’s intent. Erdogan’s actions appear to capitalize on the United States’ deferential posture.
From a realistic perspective, a U.S. rollback in Syria is the correct strategy. Since Rex Tillerson symbolicallybowed the U.S. out of the Syrian conflict in early April 2017, the fundamental mission has been to combat the remains of ISIS. It is reasonable to question why a U.S. military presence west of the Euphrates river, in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood, is necessary to fulfill that mission. The U.S. is in dangerous territory, literally and figuratively. Getting wrapped up directly in the Syrian civil war, now that the Assad regime’s survival has been virtually guaranteed, would be unwise. The menagerie of state and non-state stakeholders involved on the ground in Syria make the war increasingly complex and the risk of major power conflict high. Reports now indicate that pro-Assad militias are entering the Afrin region to assist the Kurds against Turkey, forcing many to imagine a scenario in which the United States is on the same side as the Assad regime in a fight against a NATO ally. As terrible and pervasive as the human rights abuses have been in Syria, it does not make strategic sense for the U.S. to further entangle itself.
It is extremely dangerous to keep American troops within hand grenade range of Turkish, Russian, Syrian, and Iranian backed militias. Even if it was strategically necessary, the United States lacks the political leverage to make the presence sustainable. Nobody wants the U.S. in Syria, not in an indirect, diplomatic capacity, and definitely not in a military one. The risks also far outweigh the reward. American servicemen are needlessly put in danger and an existential crisis for NATO becomes potential, if not likely.
In the face of so much state-on-state tension, and with the integrity of NATO on the line, Washington seems likely to placate Turkey at the expense of the Syrian Kurdish enclaves of Afrin and Manbij. In fact, the signs already point to this happening. Though the U.S. has received much justified criticism over its Syria strategy, a practical re-evaluation of the mess on the ground is absolutely warranted and a pullback necessary.
Matt Cohen is a Master’s candidate at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs concentrating in Transnational Security with a focus on the Middle East.