Letter from America

Syrian file

Print edition : September 30, 2016

Free Syrian Army fighters launch a Grad rocket from Halfaya town in Hama province towards forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stationed in the Zein al-Abidin mountain on September 4. Photo: Ammar Abdullah/REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after their meeting in Geneva on August 26. Photo: Martial Trezzini/AP

Caught between Turkey’s demands and Kurdish ambitions, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has an impossible mission in Syria in which he is both the peacemaker and the war-maker.

UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN Kerry seems to have inexhaustible reserves of energy. He has been going back and forth between the various Arab capitals and Turkey’s capital, as well as between Geneva and Washington, D.C. Kerry’s brief is a complex one. On the one hand, it appears that he is tasked with bringing peace to Syria and Iraq as well as the other conflict zones in West Asia and north Africa: he is, in other words, to be the peacemaker. On the other hand, Kerry’s mission is to coalesce the diplomatic efforts against the Islamic State (I.S.) and against other threats to the U.S. In this role, Kerry is a war-maker, given ballast by the massive U.S. military presence in the region and the considerable U.S. military sales to its allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Ancient Romans gave their god of war—Mars—a peaceful incarnation, Mars Pacifier. It is Mars who wore the olive branches that were associated with peace, the crossed branches of which are on the United Nations’ flag. Mars’ conflicted mission will be familiar to Kerry, who enters conversations that are putatively about peacemaking with arms sales and belligerence on his sleeve. It is an unenviable position.

Complexities of Syria

Kerry’s most difficult brief is the Syria file. The U.S. policy on Syria seems discordant. It has committed itself to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. This has been its goal since before the Syrian uprising. In 2002, the U.S. Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act, which sought to break the air bridge that Syria provided for the Iranians to rearm the Lebanese political group, Hizbollah. The broader goal was to isolate Iran. It has not succeeded. In 2011, the U.S. joined Qatar and Saudi Arabia, its Gulf Arab allies, and Turkey to provide diplomatic support and logistical supplies to the rebels. These powers hoped that Assad would be overthrown quickly. Nothing like that happened. In fact, when Russia intervened in Syria, the question of regime change fell off the table. When two aid workers cornered Kerry at a conference in Istanbul and asked for more U.S. military intervention against Assad, he said: “What do you want me to do? Go to war with the Russians?”

The chaos created by the civil war in Syria opened up space for the expansion of the I.S. from Iraq into Syria and for various Al Qaeda-backed groups to take control of the rebellion. What had befallen Afghanistan seemed to be afflicting Syria—both countries fell prey to outside powers who had little regard for their people. The U.S. policy spluttered from “Remove Assad” to “Degrade and Destroy ISIS” (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; ISIS changed its name to Islamic State in 2014). The U.S. air power, which had been blocked from attacking Damascus, now turned on the I.S. targets in northern Syria. That bombing continues to some effect. The problem that the U.S. war planners saw from the start was that the war against the I.S. cannot be won merely by aerial bombardment. Ground troops are needed.

The U.S. is unwilling to commit its own troops. Assad’s army is busy dealing with Al Qaeda and other rebels along the western axis of Syria. It has engaged the I.S. in Palmyra and in parts of Aleppo but is not prepared to march towards Raqqa, the “capital” of the I.S. in Syria. U.S. proxies have been fickle. They have taken training and arms from the Americans and then defected just as quickly to one of the battalions affiliated to Al Qaeda. At one point, it seemed as if millions of dollars had been spent by the U.S. to train at the most a handful of loyal fighters. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which the U.S. had hoped would be a decisive force, turned out to be less reliable and less effective than expected.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has been trained by the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) from Turkey, is the most capable fighting force against the I.S. in the regions of northern Syria. But since the U.S. sees the PKK as a terrorist outfit, it had a difficult time making a tactical alliance with the YPG. Eager for air support, the YPG cleverly created a military wing called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is made up of YPG fighters as well as militia groups from a host of ethnicities (Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Chechens, Circassian, Syriacs and Turkmen). This new fighting force claimed to be the shield of northern Syria against the I.S., and its Kurdish separatist ambitions became mute. The U.S. then began to provide logistical and aerial support for the SDF, which made decisive gains against the I.S. along the Turkish border. And it is because it fought along this border that problems began to arise for the SDF and the U.S.

Kerry rushed to Ankara to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in early August. Tensions in Turkey reached fever pitch. The Turkish Right, including sections of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), blamed the U.S. for the “failed coup” of July 15. The head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff also visited Turkey to ascertain whether there would be any breakdown of the U.S.-Turkish military alliance. The U.S. uses the Turkish airbase at Incirlik to bomb the I.S. If the Turkish government prevented the use of this base, it would create problems for the U.S. mission. (There is a precedent for this. In 2003, the Turkish Parliament voted against allowing the U.S. to use Turkish soil to bomb Iraq.) Erdogan did not escalate the conflict. He provided some space for the U.S. to affirm that it did not assist the coup plotters and that it would not be inconsiderate of Turkish objectives in Syria.

What are Turkey’s objectives in Syria? The initial objective, which was in alignment with that of the U.S., was to remove Assad from power. The prolonged civil war, the gains made by the Kurds inside Syria, the failure of Turkish proxies to make their political and military gains, and the entry of Russia have dented Turkish ambitions. When the I.S. began its attacks inside Turkey, the game being played in Syria had come home to roost. Turkish business groups, worried about what the war had done to their own markets in West Asia and contacts in Russia, pushed Erdogan to reconsider his strategy. Turkey made amends with Russia and began to suggest that Assad could remain for an unspecified transitional period. The U.S. has also come to this position, since it, too, cannot see an easy way to remove Assad from power. Neither Erdogan nor the Barack Obama administration is convinced of the possibility of regime change in Damascus.

Stability is not easy to create out of the chaos unleashed inside Syria. The U.S. relies on the SDF, whose backbone is the YPG, in its fight against the I.S. in Syria. Turkey’s greatest fear is that the YPG’s rapid movement along the Turkish-Syrian border will result in the creation of a largely Kurdish “state” called Rojava (or western Kurdistan). There is no way that Ankara will allow such a Kurdish autonomous region to emerge on its border. The U.S. and Turkey, therefore, have antithetical interests in northern Syria: the U.S. wants to use the SDF to battle the I.S., while the Turkish government sees the SDF as a greater threat to its own national interests than the I.S. This contradiction is not going to be easy to overcome. U.S. State Department officials admit that there is no simple solution here. They would prefer, as one told me, to manage the situation with “surface band aids, rather than try to set the deep wound with a tight bandage”.

Kerry hopes that his understanding with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, will produce a breakthrough eventually in Geneva. The track record of the Geneva talks has been poor. The Syrian opposition is fractured along the lines of its external backers; Turkish-backed groups and Saudi-backed groups are unable to see eye to eye, for instance. Lack of unity makes it hard for the Syrian opposition to play a credible role in the negotiations. The links of this opposition to various extremist groups inside Syria are thin, and even if they were stronger this would only make them lose their legitimacy in the U.S. Harsh military tactics from the Syrian Army do not allow Damascus to come to the table without dirty hands. Trust between the parties is limited. Kerry and Lavrov miraculously hope that the fractious rebels and the Assad government will take seriously the pieces of paper that they exchange between each other. Nothing is further from reality as they found in their failed attempt on August 26 to restart the Geneva process.

What is clear is that whatever unity lay behind the rebel groups in the civil war has now fully broken down. Iran, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. are united in their view that the Assad government must be allowed to remain for a transitional period and that all reasonable actors must concentrate their fire on the I.S. and the Al Qaeda-backed groups. Qatar and Saudi Arabia do not accept this view. The U.S. has backed the SDF, which the Turkish government finds to be as dangerous as the I.S. If Syrian politics is currently fractious, so too is the politics that surrounds Syria.

Pressure on Washington to do more—to arm the rebels or to create a no-fly zone—continues. In Newsweek, Michael O’Hanlon, who worked at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), suggests that the U.S. arm those groups that were once affiliated to the Al Qaeda group Jabhat al-Nusra. “We need to be somewhat more willing to work with groups that are tainted by past association with the Nusra Front,” he wrote, “as long as we can vouch for the fact that they are not themselves Nusra members.” This is as far as it has reached: where senior members of the U.S. think tank and intelligence community now openly talk about arming people who once wore the colours of Al Qaeda. This is not official U.S. policy.

Kerry warned that one of the reasons for the failure of the Geneva process was the government’s violations of the previous agreements. The other reason is an interesting one. Kerry is dismayed about the “increasing influence of the al-Nusra Front”. Not al-Nusra’s presence, but its “increasing influence”, an influence strengthened by assistance from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs.

U.S. foreign policy is caught in conflicts that it helped fuel, and it is unable to exit. The U.S.’ failure to help its Syrian Kurdish ally will further dent the limited credibility it has in this conflict. Caught between Turkey’s demands and the Kurdish ambitions, the U.S. will pick the former to save its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation alliances. That is inevitable. It is precisely what the Kurds fear. They have lived a century of betrayals. One more will be added to their list.

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