The war in Syria should be ending. The Islamic State has lost all the territory it seized in 2014. The Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, has confined other anti-government rebels to besieged pockets in the south, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus and in the northwest. Opposition hopes of removing Syrian President Bashar al Assad have vanished. But the war refuses to die. It just takes new forms.
The latest phase has little to do with Syria, apart from the fact that it’s taking place there. The antagonists are Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the United States, which has declared a post-Islamic State mission that will keep American advisers and their local surrogates in Syria for years to come. The mission calls for the United States to train, arm and advise a 30,000-strong, mostly Kurdish border security force. Following the announcement of the project Jan. 14, Erdogan pledged “to strangle it before it’s even born.” He has moved Turkish military units to the border and launched artillery shells at Kurdish positions in their western enclave of Afrin.
Aware that his opposition to the U.S.-backed Kurdish force pits him against his largest NATO ally, Erdogan told members of parliament from his Justice and Development Party, “Hey, NATO! You are obliged to take a stance against those who harass and violate the borders of your members.” The mission threatens to tear the military bloc apart and to commit the United States to a long-term presence in a country where it has no strategic interest.
Erdogan sees the backbone of the proposed border security force — a Kurdish militia known as the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG), or People’s Protection Units — as an arm of the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane (PKK), or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Turkish security forces have been fighting the PKK off and on since 1984. In fact, Turkey regards the group as a terrorist organization and long ago persuaded the United States and European Union to do the same. No one doubts the PKK’s influence over the YPG or the role its fighters played, alongside other Kurdish groups, in defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. To pull off its plan, the United States must either take the PKK off the register of terrorist groups or sell its NATO allies on the idea that the group is a terrorist organization in Turkey but not in Syria.
Erdogan’s resistance to a prolonged U.S. presence in Syria under the guise of the new force has received support even from Turkey’s adversaries in the Syrian civil war — namely al Assad’s government, Russia and Iran. These three entities undoubtedly see the U.S. scheme as a pretext to keep a military presence in Syria, deprive Syrian authorities control over large swaths of the country and gain leverage over the war’s putative victors.
A Precedent for Peril
In his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 11, David Satterfield, the State Department’s senior bureau official for near eastern affairs, explained the new border force. Satterfield described it as an effort “to not only diminish Iranian foreign influence in Syria generally, but to protect our allies from the very real threat Hezbollah poses in southwest Syria to our allies.” But that raises the question: How often have Hezbollah or other militias backed by the Syrian government attacked Israel across the cease-fire lines Henry Kissinger negotiated in 1974?
The answer is never. Israel is capable of protecting its border with Syria, where a U.N. disengagement force has been in place for 40 years. A U.S. presence in the form of a Kurdish-dominated militia, particularly one that is overextended in areas with Arab majorities, is unlikely to increase border security. It will, however, present a tempting target for attacks by groups loyal to the Syrian government, which will do everything in its power to remove the United States and its clients from Syrian territory. Tensions have already surfaced in the Kurdish-occupied town of Manbij, where members of the Arab al-Bouna tribe protested the death by torture of two young Arabs held by the Kurds.
One of the leading American experts on Syria, Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, wrote:
“By controlling half of Syria’s energy resources, the Euphrates dam at Tabqa, as well as much of Syria’s best agricultural land, the US will be able to keep Syria poor and under-resourced… The US should be helping the PYD [Partiya Yetikia Demokrat, or Democratic Union Party, the civilian wing of the YPG,] to negotiate a deal with Assad that promotes both their interests: Kurdish autonomy and Syrian sovereignty. Both have shared interests, which make a deal possible. Both see Turkey as their main danger. Both need to cooperate in order to exploit the riches of the region. Both distrust radical Islamists and fear their return. Neither can rebuild alone.”
In the absence of U.S.-Russian-Syrian cooperation to end the war in Syria, U.S. troops on the ground will be hostages to guerrilla warfare against them. There is a precedent for successful Syrian covert action against the United States and Israel. It was set in Lebanon after Israel’s 1982 invasion when assassination, suicide bombings and direct attacks drove the United States out in 1984 and forced a total Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon 16 years later. The current U.S. administration may be unaware of this history, but Damascus isn’t. And this time, its agents will be operating in their own country with the full support of Iran and Russia, and with Turkey’s acquiescence. Syria would thus join Iraq and Afghanistan as the locale of a long, unwinnable American war.