A short scoping piece on Turkey, the Kurds, and Syria. None of this assuages the acute stomach-ache from seeing Turkey attacking the Kurds in Syria.
1. We should never have been embedded with one of the warring factions in Syria. That was always a strategically fatal path from which we would have to extricate ourselves. It tied our short-term interests, our national reputation, and the fate of our deployed troops to someone else’s priorities. This was foreseeable from the beginning.*
2. The alternative for engagement was to be at the settlement table for Syria, brokering agreements and outcomes for the disputants because of national interests we have in the overall outcome. Obama didn’t get that started; Trump hasn’t made such a move either.
3. Russia has been running the only settlement table in sight for Syria. It has not had any notable success, largely because it’s being run by Russia and no one trusts Russia.
4. It would have been as fatal to be at a settlement table being run by Russia as it is to be embedded militarily with a faction. The United States does not importune, maneuver cynically, or suffer extortion at other nations’ tables. We don’t tie our reputation to the success or failure of such tables. This is because our government is accountable to the people, and the people would not have it so. Either we are the strongest, and act in every respect with strength and according to our priorities, or we defend our priorities without embroiling our nation in other nations’ quarrels. When we have strayed from these tenets, we have brought on ourselves our worst consequences.
5. Had Obama chosen at the very beginning to diplomatically headlock Russia into securing an Assad-free settlement in Syria, we would not be where we are now. Had Trump decided to leverage military momentum in 2017 to take the reins of the lackluster settlement process in Syria – which he could have gotten both Arab (Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian) and European support for – we would not be where we are now.
Water under the bridge.
6. We are where we are now. There is no prospect today of a Kurdish state. The United States can’t remain embedded with the Kurds for however long it takes for conditions to change so that there can be a Kurdish state. It’s an untenable position.
We should be doing something different to extricate ourselves from it, rather than sending abrupt political signals via poorly explained operational decisions. But simply imagining that everything will remain in stasis if we keep 50 commandos embedded with the Kurds in the “safe zone” in northern Syria is a fool’s complacency.
7. We are where we are. Trump has sent his abrupt political signal with an operational decision; one that, once again, has required elucidation afterward. Trump is where he is too; there is a very narrow limit to his options in Syria, for multiple reasons. Even if it fit Trump’s preferences, and it doesn’t, we are past the point at which there may have been an option to turn Syria into a U.S.-dominated operating space for diplomatic purposes – which depends irreducibly on military advantage. Obama determinedly eschewed any such enterprise, and Trump has as well. There is zero appetite for it in America in 2019. (For what it’s worth, I believe both presidents, for their different reasons, have read the situation correctly and understood that there was never a general appetite for it among the people.)
8. The dynamics of the operating space, which have been trying to change, now will. Everyone who thinks he knows exactly what is going to happen is wrong. Turkey doesn’t have the combat power to steamroll miles into Syria. Russia and Iran will oppose any such attempt, and they have ways of making a steamroll too costly to Turkey. We’ll see what they do; what they don’t do will not be from lack of capability. The limited operational opening we are seeing at this moment, with Turkish strikes across the border, looks like a move being made under felt restraints, probably from warnings to Turkey by Russia and the U.S.
(Realistically, Russia may well let the Kurds take enough hits to weaken their posture, but not let Turkey press any advantage too far. The Kurds, and the willingness of some of them to seek an agreement before they lose too much, would be the less predictable variable. If Erdogan restricts himself to gaining de facto control of a limited strip along Syria’s northern border, and for the time being doesn’t push too hard to formalize it with Cyprus-like declarations, Russia and a rump Kurdish consortium may find that tolerable – for the moment.)
Watch what Turkey does about the ISIS prisoners being held by the Kurds. If Turkey seeks to see them loosed, that’s a good indication this is meant to be a major strategic move.
The very premise of NATO may be strained to the brink of failure. It may not; no one sees an articulable, near-term alternative to NATO. But U.S. sanctions on a NATO ally that claims to be defending itself against terrorism will be a new problem for the alliance, as will the prospect of changing the assumptions that undergird U.S. basing in and NATO operations from Turkey. In today’s conditions, this has the potential to be a bigger crisis for the alliance than the Cyprus crisis in 1974.
Erdogan’s own autocratic rule has been weakened by the unfavorable outcomes of recent elections. There’s more than one pressure point here. His options are not unlimited. Neither are Iran’s or Iraq’s, much less Assad’s. Even Russia is under increasing domestic stress. Europe, with U.S. policy dominance discouraging activism on the periphery (which has been the case since 2011), is supine. The Saudis and Egyptians are absorbed with their own security problems. The domestic divisions and other security problems in literally every major nation with a stake or influence can’t be waved away as unimportant.
9. I suggest not making these two mistakes: assuming the other nations can do what they cannot, or demanding that Trump do what he cannot. I don’t know what Trump would do if he could count on the backing of Congress. Probably not what I would do, frankly. Certainly not exactly what I would do. But we do know that Trump will be able to do (as opposed to not do) only what retains the backing of Congress. Unlike Obama, Trump will not have the media with him at any point as this situation develops. He may, meanwhile, for valid reasons elect not to do what Congress can agree on. Congress acts as shortsightedly as any other partisan deliberative body when it tries to dictate foreign policy to the president. The current Congress, in one of its chambers, is acting so shortsightedly in every respect that it is not to be counted on for anything.
* I wrote the following when we first deployed the 50 commandos to embed with the Kurds, in October 2015 (emphasis from the original):
Getting caught up in the dynamics of a local conflict is not what U.S. military force is for either. There is no rule of politics or military operations that says we have to restrict our level and nature of fighting to the best the Kurds can do against ISIS. In fact, if we’re not going in to alter the dynamics of the local fight, and force decision where the Kurds or other militias can’t, we’re not doing what only America can do – and therefore, we’re doing it wrong.
And so: we’re doing it wrong.
Fortunately, the worst-case scenario I outlined at the time hasn’t come to pass. That’s partly due to things we had no control over, and partly due to Trump’s expansion of our operating profile in Syria in 2017. But the original proposition laid out above remains valid.