Tell Me How This Ends
By Max Boot
May 9, 2017
the search for effective proxies in Syria, the U.S. has found the Kurdish YPG
militia to be the best bet. It may be the group most willing to fight ISIS but
also the one least infected by Islamist extremism. The Obama administration was
prepared to overlook the YPG’s links to the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group
in Turkey, to the Bashar
Assad regime and to Iran.
It still hesitated, though, to provide the YPG with the heavy arms that would be
necessary to take back Raqqa, ISIS’s capital, for fear of offending Turkey.
Trump administration has now made the decision that Obama put off before leaving
office. Trump has reportedly agreed to
provide the YPG with what it needs to move on Raqqa. This decision is hardly
disguised by the fact that the U.S. support is ostensibly going to the Syrian
Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab coalition. Everyone knows that the YPG are by
far the strongest element within this coalition and that its Arabs are largely
the YPG has long been the preference of the U.S. armed forces, whose advisers
are working with this group, and so it is hardly surprising that Trump has taken
the military’s advice. Indeed, this decision seemed inescapable as long as the
U.S. wants to liberate Raqqa without sending its own ground forces to get the
president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will not be happy. He recently sent his
air force to bomb the YPG despite U.S. protests. He views the YPG as a threat to
Turkey, not only because of its close ties to the PKK but also because it is
bent on creating a Kurdish state (Rojava) in northern Syria. He is not wrong
about this; the creation of Rojava is indeed the YPG’s goal.
is understandable that the administration did not accede to Erdogan’s protests
given how he has ignored American equities, shredded Turkish democracy, and
drawn closer to Russia. But offending Turkey carries obvious risks, given the
extent to which the U.S. is dependent on access to the Incirlik air base in
Turkey to support its operations in northern Syria and Iraq. Erdogan can make
life difficult for the U.S. if he were to suspend the use of Incirlik. Still,
the U.S. military could rely on air bases in the Persian Gulf region, so
Erdogan’s opposition is not a deal-breaker.
real issue here is less the impact of this decision on U.S.-Turkish relations,
which are already poor, but, rather, its effect on Syria’s future. What
exactly does the administration seek to accomplish in Syria beyond defeating
ISIS? At the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, then-Major General David
Petraeus asked a prophetic question: Tell me how this ends? The same question
should now be applied to the U.S. campaign in Syria: How will it end?
any luck, ISIS will lose its strongholds on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border
by the end of the year. But who will then administer the territory? The U.S.
hope is that locals of moderate predilection will take control of their own
communities and that Syria will devolve into a series of autonomous cantons. But
if there is one thing we should have learned from the past decade and a half in
Iraq and Afghanistan it is that moderates can seldom stand on their own against
well-organized extremists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Syria, the moderate opposition has been losing ground for years, thanks in large
part to Western neglect. Growing stronger have been the government forces of
Bashar Assad—backed by Iran and Russia—and the Sunni extremists of
al-Qaeda’s Syrian chapter which, after several re-brandings, is now known as Hayat
Tahrir al-Sham. HTS is becoming the strongest force in opposition-controlled
areas and stands to benefit from ISIS’s demise. If the administration has a
plan to prevent al-Qaeda from gaining at ISIS’s expenses, it remains a closely
guarded secret. n fact, from all that I have been able to discern, no such plan
exists. Nor does the administration seem to have any plan to diminish the power
of Shiite extremist groups such as Hezbollah, which have become an increasingly
powerful force in government-controlled areas.
far as I can tell, the administration simply hopes that, by defeating ISIS, it
will enable negotiations to create some kind of Syrian confederation with Kurds,
Sunnis, and Alawites dividing up the country between them. This may be the
ultimate endgame, but it will only work if none of these cantons are under the
sway of violent extremists. The model here is the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords,
which divided Bosnia into the largely Serbian Orthodox Republika Srpska and the
largely Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat (Catholic) Federation of Bosnia and
Herzegovina. The division wouldn’t have worked if Serbian war criminals had
taken control of the former and Muslim extremists of the latter.
Syria will never see peace or stability as long as Shiite and Sunni fanatics
remain dominant on both sides. Indeed simply the continuing rule by war criminal
Bashar Assad ensures that the majority of the population will continue to remain
in revolt, consigning Syria to perpetual warfare.
plan, if any, does the administration have prevent Sunni and Shiite extremists
from dividing Syria between them? Has it given any thought to how to remove
Assad and what would replace him? So far, there is no sign of any Syria policy
beyond defeating ISIS, the cruise missile attack on one Syrian air base earlier
in the month having been an apparent aberration.
is hardly a failing of the Trump administration alone; the Obama administration
also had no endgame in mind in Syria, and it was presented with a much less
complex situation in the early years of the civil war which broke out in 2011.
Or, rather, it would be more accurate to say Obama had no realistic end
game in mind since his strategy was hinged on the fanciful talks convened in
Geneva by Secretary of State John Kerry. The Trump administration has not
restarted those futile negotiations, but nor has it presented a more realistic
blueprint for ending the Syrian civil war. That is a much more significant
issue, and a much harder one to resolve, than the arming of the YPG.