Today the U.S. State Department released a statement about “Turkish military forces and Turkish backed opposition forces” looting Afrin after “liberating” the Kurdish enclave. There are serious concerns about Turkey’s inability to control its proxy militias, though some processes have begun to punish criminal elements. Some have voiced concerns about the ideological composition of the Turkish-backed force, and there are Islamists in their ranks, but the accusations these forces are infested with jihadists from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) are unfounded. The Turks seek to press the U.S. into reverting to the original strategy brokered between the United States and Turkey in 2016 to keep Kurdish forces armed by the U.S. East of the Euphrates River in Syria.
The US has had trouble finding viable partners in Syria because it tried to wage war solely on ISIS, an outgrowth of the underlying Syrian conflict. The Pentagon tried to run an overt program that trained rebels to fight ISIS, and made them sign forms saying they would not fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which had motivated them to take up arms in the first place. Predictably there were hardly any takers and the program swiftly collapsed on impact with reality. The separate, ostensibly covert, CIA-run Operation TIMBER SYCAMORE, which armed rebels allowed to fight Assad, worked far better, training tens of thousands of fighters with very little resource leakage to extremists. The CIA program was never raised to a level where it could alter battlefield dynamics because the U.S. priority was never to overthrow Assad and get entangled too deeply in Syria. So, by default the US Department of Defense went with the Kurdish YPG in Syria, which had cordial relations with Assad and hostile relations with Turkey and the rebels supported by the CIA. That’s the flustercuck of Northern Syria.
The US is signaling it wants to return to the original agreement made with Ankara in 2016 and keep its word in hopes of thawing relations with its largest NATO ally. This means not intervening West of the Euphrates beyond the agreed upon cooperation of the transition of power in Manbij, which is just West of the Euphrates. And in a perfect world, restart peace talks between the Ankara and the YPG/PKK faction.
With the State Department influx it’s unclear who is actually running the ship in Foggy Bottom but these signals seem to be in line with the pragmatic approach of Secretary of Defense General James Mattis. The US has invested a ton of effort and built larger strategies that rely on and at the same time Turkey has relied on its access to American weapons for its strong regional position astride Europe and Near Asia. Scrapping this relationship is not practical for either country.
Though the State Department didn’t specify who had carried out the “looting inside the city of Afrin”, they were referring to the Islamist militia factions among the proxies Turkey uses in Northern Syria. It is highly unlikely the US will hand Manbij over to unruly militias and will require that Turkey send proper Turkish military so the transition can occur more smoothly between U.S. and Ankara. It would not only make it easier but it would be a sign of good faith on Turkey’s part.
The unspoken truth about Eastern Syria is only one power is strong enough to keep it clear of Salafi extremist, be it a revitalised al Qaeda or ISIS. Some see it as American arrogance and others just see it for the reality that it is. It would be the epitome of stupidity and history repeating itself for the US to pull out of the Sunni triangle just to watch it be taken over again in a couple of years. The Iraqi forces need time to catch their breath after the taking Mosul and clearing out most of Iraq so the US is likely going to be securing that border for the foreseeable future.
This portion of the State Department statement left no room for misinterpretation,
“The United States does not operate in the area of northwest Syria, where Afrin is located. We remain committed to our NATO ally Turkey, to include their legitimate security concerns. We also remain committed to the Defeat ISIS campaign and our Syrian Democratic Forces partners in eastern Syria.”
The new rules are simple and require no bluster from the US as that would only play into the populist hand of Turkish President Erdogan. They merely need be enforced. Both of you stay on your side of the river and keep your small arms to yourselves.