Time to weigh options for a new course of action in Syria

Time to weigh options for a new course of action in Syria
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria has forced a long overdue re-think of American policy toward that country, its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces and President Erdogan's Turkey.  

It’s true that the U.S. under President Trump’s predecessors accepted a series of indefinite military commitments abroad that the American public does not fully support, and in some cases is not even aware of.  

In Syria, American troops had been asked to safeguard an unrecognized statelet surrounded by hostile neighbors, locked in an endless campaign against ISIS, with no clear exit strategy and no plan for reconciliation with either Damascus or Ankara.

ADVERTISEMENT

Such a status quo was ultimately unsustainable and President Trump’s desire to revise it is a sound one. 

However, as American voices on both sides of the aisle have agreed, the abrupt abandonment of a steadfast U.S. ally in the campaign against ISIS does tremendous harm to American credibility in the region, and is justly unsettling to America’s many friends in the Middle East.

The Kurdish-dominated SDF bore the brunt of fighting against the Islamic State, and was assured by no less than the president himself that American support could be relied upon. If they cannot trust in Washington’s promises, who can?

Even worse, the hasty withdrawal of special operators from Syria has effectively green lighted a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria. On a humanitarian level, this bodes ominously for local inhabitants — several civilians have already been killed in airstrikes, and the precedent of Turkey’s 2017 “Olive Branch” operation suggests large-scale ethnic cleansing may follow suit.

Strategically, the implications are no less dire. Confronted with a widespread Turkish assault, the SDF will be forced to redeploy away from the front lines with the Islamic State, just as that group appears to be regrouping in both Iraq and Syria. 

ADVERTISEMENT

On balance, then, this move appears to benefit America’s rivals — ISIS, President Erdogan, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies — while harming American interests and demoralizing America’s allies. What should be done instead?

One option, suggested by the President and his allies, is to continue to draw down US troop levels in Syria but deter Turkish aggression through economic sanctions. As a first step, the President reportedly plans to sign an executive order paving the way to sanctions on Turkish entities. “We can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to,” as Mr. Mnuchin recently put it.

Yet the prospect of hypothetical sanctions seems unlikely to halt a long-planned major ground operation — Turkey’s third offensive inside Syria in as many years — against what Ankara perceives as a “separatist terror group” posing a major threat to Turkish national security. In truth, the U.S. alliance with the SDF was always a high-risk proposition, viewed in Ankara with the darkest of suspicion. Given the collapse of the Turkish-Kurdish peace process in 2015, many believed that it was only a matter of time before Turkey forced the US to choose between its NATO ally and its Syrian Kurdish partner. And now that that hour has come, the options are bleak indeed. 

Another option, sure to prove distasteful to some, would be to encourage reconciliation between the SDF and Damascus. If Syria’s northeast could be peacefully reincorporated into the Syrian state under negotiated terms, that might offer some hope of averting a protracted Turkish-Kurdish war and opening a space for the Islamic State to reemerge. After all, Turkey might have few qualms about all-out conflict with a newly isolated Kurdish militia, but the prospect of war with Syria — and, by extension, its Iranian patron — would be another matter entirely. 

Successfully executing such a gambit would require a degree of diplomatic nimbleness seldom seen. Syria’s Kurds, after years of hard-won battlefield triumphs, would have to concede substantial power to a government with a well-earned reputation for being vindictive and punitive in victory. 

For its part, the U.S. would need to extract credible guarantees from Damascus that the most repressive apparatuses of the Syrian state — particularly the dreaded mukhabarat — would be excluded from the northeast. It is far from certain that the Asad regime would consent to such an arrangement, yet the Kurds might well be forgiven for opting to take their chances on the battlefield without it.  

Should this vision be politically or practically unrealizable, America’s last, best option would be an ad hoc combination of military re-commitment (which a careful reading of Kurdish rhetoric indicates is still possible), economic deterrence, and diplomatic reconciliation. It would require President Trump to reconsider his decision to withdraw American troops without consulting America’s allies, to deploy them to the Syrian-Turkish border, and to offer Ankara a calibrated package of political and economic disincentives to halt its military operations.

Prodding Erdogan to de-escalate while simultaneously enabling him to save face will be a delicate act, but mercifully free of the moral and strategic compromises implicit in the other available options. Above all, it would require Washington to wean itself of the risk-aversion, impatience, short-term vision, and unrealistic alignment of ends and means which have all too often been the cornerstone of policymaking in the Middle East. 

Ahmed Charai is on the board directors at the Atlantic Council and an international counselor at the Center for the National Interest, which is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank. Center for the National Interest was established by former U.S. President Richard Nixon.