The US's fatal mistake in northern Syria

The US's fatal mistake in northern Syria
5 min read
01 Sep, 2016
Comment: The White House is walking a tightrope in northern Syria, as it makes chaotic attempts to balance relations with both Ankara and Kurdish forces, writes Joe Macaron
US should find the balance between supporting Kurds and maintaining friendly relations with Ankara [AFP]

The moment the Turkish incursion into Syrian territory began on August 24, the stage was set for a direct military confrontation between Ankara and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The US attempt to play both sides of the fence in a volatile conflict is unravelling now, and Washington once again has overestimated its ability to shape the Middle East's political dynamics.

The US and Turkey appear to have agreed on the general principle of having a "safe zone" over northern Syria, however the discord that prevented this move centres around actual control on the ground.

The strained relation between the two countries following the July 15 military coup attempt in Turkey prompted Washington to concede on one of Ankara's major demands: Preventing a Kurdish corridor on its border. Hence, the White House surprisingly decided to walk this tightrope in northern Syria, adding further confusion to an already faltering US policy.

As Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Ankara, Turkish and American warplanes were pounding the Syrian border allowing a coalition of Turkish troops, the Free Syrian Army and Turkmen fighters to reach Jarabulus within 12 hours.

"We have made it clear to Kurdish forces that they must move back across the (Euphrates) river. They cannot and will not get American support if they do not keep that commitment," affirmed Biden while giving no indication at all that Washington has any reservations about this incursion.

Indeed, the US not only carried out surveillance flights and targeted the Islamic State militants, but also advised the Turkish military in planning the incursion. The US military was upbeat, talking about how the fall of Jarabulus would pave the way for the battle of Raqqa, seemingly in a parallel universe where Washington believes all parties in the Syrian conflict will somehow work together to defeat IS.

Washington once again has overestimated its ability to shape the Middle East's political dynamics

The general sense last week was that the US has traded its ties to Syrian Kurds with improving its relations with Turkey. By early this week, a different tone began to emerge. The Pentagon described on August 29 the clashes in northern Syria as "unacceptable" and made it clear that Washington did not support expanding the Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces on Syrian soil.

The Wall Street Journal reported on August 30 that Ankara unilaterally pulled the trigger on the incursion without giving US officials advance warning, as the White House was still deliberating Ankara's suggestion to have US special forces embedded in the mission. US military commanders apparently had to scramble to provide the Turks with limited air support, instead of taking the lead.

It is unclear whether the US is intentionally giving the impression of not endorsing the August 24 Turkish incursion, in order to appease Kurdish allies, or whether Ankara actually succeeded in forcing the US's hand in the Syrian conflict.

On both accounts, this amounts to either a failure of policy, or of intelligence. By August 17, Turkish authorities were clear about their intentions and already began transporting Syrian rebels to the border.

It is hard to believe that Ankara's proposed intervention did not make it to President Barack Obama's desk before August 24

Turkish warplanes and tanks on the move should have been detected by US intelligence, and it is hard to believe that Ankara's proposed intervention did not make it to President Barack Obama's desk before August 24, as a senior US official told The Wall Street Journal.

Regardless of the US's intention, the Turkish incursion will have a lasting impact on the Syrian conflict and it will now be difficult for the US to manage Ankara's eagerness to project power in northern Syria.

When Manbij was liberated on August 12, not only was a supply route cut between the Turkish border and Raqqa, but Kurdish groups also came closer to linking areas across Jarabulus to Afrin. For years now, Ankara has preferred having IS on its border, to dealing with emboldened Syrian Kurdish forces. Washington is now seeking to revisit the redline it has established to keep Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates with an additional rule of engagement that keeps Turkish troops west of the river.

It is also hard to understand the rationale behind having the Free Syrian Army as the face of the Turkish fight against Syrian Kurds. After all Jarabulus is not a strategic priority for the Syrian opposition's struggle against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, nor is it wise to have direct confrontation with a group that will remain an integral part of any Syrian solution despite concerns about its behavior.

The US was able until now to restrain the readiness of the People's Protection Units (YPG) to declare an open war against Turkish troops, but tension is already rising between Syrian Kurds and Arabs in Manbij, and this might extend to other areas on the border.

Washington might now have reached a watershed moment that sees it losing momentum in its priority of fighting IS, while risking a shift towards a new mission of policing a fragile truce between two allies. The US must contemplate how it can balance supporting Syrian Kurds and maintain friendly relations with Ankara in any future political arrangement in Syria.

Joe Macaron is a Policy Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.