Donald Trump is beating the war drums over Syria following reports of Assad using chemical weapons. Frustrated at Assad’s resurgence, however limited, and Russia and Iran’s unwavering support for the regime that has dented Washington’s carefully constructed image as an uncontestable superpower, the US has been re-assessing its options in Syria for some time.
First, Obama wrestled with Saudi Arabia’s sensitivities towards the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood, seeking a plausible political alternative after the disaster of Libya. Then Washington decided to seek moderate rebels and train them in Jordan. Then, as Assad began to turn the tide of war in his favour, the US announced its war on terror to legitimise its continued presence in Syria. Then, after the fall of Raqqa, the US decided to assist the Kurdish movements in the North to create a viable political leverage to be used against
The constant re-alignment of US interests is in stark contrast to Russia and Iran’s assured approach. Both of the latter parties are clear as to what they want even if it is for their own particular interests; the preservation of the Assad regime and integrity of Syria’s territory.
A campaign based on air strikes means little without ground forces and an effective polity which can legitimately participate in negotiations over a political settlement. In other words, an effective US policy must include backing a viable political entity among Assad’s opponents and propelling them to the forefront of the movement.
Yet, although the US has considered this, it has blundered into a crisis with a vital NATO ally in Turkey by brazenly deciding upon Ankara’s arch enemies as the polity of choice. The US chose to arm and provide logistical support to the Syrian Kurds, knowing full well that the PYD and YPG would use these means to leverage and pressure for an independent state on the Turkish border and liaise with the Turkey-based PKK. It is unlikely that the US intends to grant this wish. The resounding US betrayal of Barzani’s attempts at unilateral independence in Iraq continues to ring deep in the heart of the Kurdish independence movement as one of the great betrayals of modern times. For the US, the Kurds are to serve one purpose; a viable political leverage over Damascus as a united bloc capable of placing checks on a future Syria regime (as they did in Iraq).
Nevertheless, a strengthened Kurdish independence movement on the long and porous border with Turkey has infuriated President Erdogan to the extent that he has launched headlong into an alliance with Russia, agreeing to allow them to construct Turkey’s first nuclear plant, hosting a tri-partite summit with Russia and Iran, and investing alongside Russia in the Balkan states.
Turkey’s anger lies not just in US backing for the Kurds. It also lies in the its frustration that the US continues to discard its insistence that Northern Syria can be an effective buffer zone to train a new FSA that could act as a viable polity against Assad and act as an impenetrable trench against Russia and Iran’s attempts to ‘unite’ Syria under Assad. In other words, Ankara has argued that a viable gameplan is still plausible.
Washington has reservations over the prospect of a new FSA. For one, Turkey’s attempts to re-create one has given rise to groups akin to militias who have engaged in looting in Afrin. These groups require extensive training to render them a professional and organised body, and the Trump administration is reluctant to set aside the sizeable budget this would require. Moreover, the US has no means to filter ‘extreme’ elements that could join the FSA and fears a repeat of the former FSA that saw extreme groups rise to the fore of the opposition movement following a series of military setbacks.
Nevertheless, the US is aware that its options in Syria are limited. Russia and Iran have a polity in Assad that they back and a ground army that they clearly support with weapons and logistics. Even if their visions of a post-conflict Syria differ, they are at least united on the fact that backing Assad until the war ends is the only viable option for them. In contrast, the US has not decided on a polity among the Syrian opposition to back. Nor has it decided which group on the ground it will back wholeheartedly to counter Assad’s ‘resurgence’.
Given Turkey’s sensitivity to the Kurds, the PYD, SDF and YPG cannot be considered viable groups to support long term. Moreover, during Iraq’s war on ISIS, the Peshmerga were reluctant to fight in Mosul, suggesting they had no interest in fighting outside their perceived borders of ‘Kurdistan’. In other words, even if the US backed the Kurds, it is unlikely that they will march into areas the US wants them to that are outside their own perceived borders of ‘Kurdistan’.
The US cannot back the more extreme elements of Jaish al-Islam, or any of the other armed groups that are currently engaged in fighting regime forces given the perception that they are more closer to terrorist groups than freedom fighters.
Therefore, its only current viable option is a new FSA set up and trained in Northern Syria in the areas of Afrin and Manbij alongside Turkey. Accepting such a proposal would temper relations with Ankara, and create an effective schism in the Turkish marriage of convenience with Moscow. Russia is reluctant to engage in a war with the US head-on and is more likely to advise Assad to settle for territories away from the newly established ‘buffer’ zone than to coordinate a campaign with the Kurds to disrupt attempts at creating a new FSA.
Regardless, what is clear is that the US is currently lost over what it wants in Syria and how it should achieve…whatever it wants to achieve.