The anti-ISIS strategy designed by the Obama administration secured big wins under President Donald Trump. Now it’s about to backfire.
WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration is doubling down on a lie the U.S. government has promoted since it first began cooperating with the Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State group in 2014: that the Kurds it is working with in Syria differ from those that are anathema to NATO ally Turkey.
American officials designed that fiction to enable the anti-ISIS strategy adopted under President Barack Obama and continued under President Donald Trump. Now it’s taking its most serious toll yet: Turkey is bombarding Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in northwest Syria, with airstrikes and artillery fire and the U.S. is refusing responsibility. Extending the Obama-era logic, team Trump maintains that Afrin is totally distinct from the Kurdish regions in Syria’s northeast that are home to American bases and thousands of U.S. troops.
Dozens of civilians have died in the campaign’s initial assault on smaller villages around the main city. Over a million more are at risk, as are Turkish civilians facing rockets in response. And Trump’s choice has boosted bitterness toward the U.S. among Washington’s most effective partners in Syria. In the weeks ahead, it could torpedo U.S.-brokered cooperation between Kurds and the country’s majority Arab community, tempting more Arabs to join radical groups like the powerful local al Qaeda affiliate or what’s left of ISIS; escalate an already dire humanitarian crisis; and cede more space in Syria to actors Trump is ostensibly committed to challenging ― Russia, Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. There’s little clear benefit to the U.S. in return.
Foreign Fantasies Versus Local Realities
Squaring U.S. policy in Syria with the country’s increasingly assertive neighbor Turkey is a goal that’s eluded Washington for years. Since the Obama era, the U.S. campaign against ISIS has relied on a Kurdish militia in northern Syria called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. Turkey views that group as inseparable from an internationally blacklisted Kurdish separatist movement called the PKK that it has fought for years. The Obama administration’s solution was to speak of a difference between the two forces as often as it could.
That position fails to account for the two groups’ mutual history, leftist ideology and recruiting pools, but it’s one the Kurds can live with. Their respective officials say they sympathize for fellow Kurds across the countries they live in (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) but have distinct command-and-control structures. And to further assuage Turkey and Syria’s Arabs, the YPG subsumed its fighters under a larger anti-ISIS battalion without an explicit Kurdish flavor ― a two-year-old construct called the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes thousands of Arabs and Assyrians.
But that fig leaf never quite satisfied Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He used his military and allied Syrian Arab groups to carve out Turkey’s own area of influence in northern Syria in the summer of 2016, noting that the Kurds were expanding beyond previously agreed-on borders, and pushed increasingly dramatic anti-Kurd rhetoric as he sought nationalist support at home for his growing authoritarianism and as the YPG grew visibly stronger thanks to American help.
Isolated from the other main Kurdish regions in the northeast, Afrin was an easy target for Turkish saber-rattling. By the tail end of 2017, Turkish officials began frequently speaking of an operation there to teach the Kurds a lesson. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month projected a long-term U.S. presence in Syria, implying a long-term relationship with the YPG, Turkey declared that an operation by Turkish forces and Arab militants would come within days. Erdogan sought and received approval from Russia, which controls most airspace in northwestern Syria as part of its operation to defend the Syrian regime, and used the Turkish threat to tell the Kurds they should simply hand Afrin to Assad ― something they could never accept given his brutality and Kurds’ painful memories of his rule, two Kurdish officials told HuffPost.
Faced with the Turkish-Kurdish showdown analysts have warned of for years, Washington decided reality was simply too complex to deal with.
The official U.S. line is that all parties should remain focused on ISIS. That admonition caused the trouble in the first place, of course. The U.S. focus on ISIS meant the YPG was an essential partner, and frustration with Turkey’s long reluctance to crack down on the group dominated planners’ thinking, making it easy to punt on questions like how the two would coexist once Americans changed the power balance in the Kurds’ favor and what Washington owed them in return for their anti-ISIS success.
“We encourage all parties to avoid escalation and to focus on the most important task of defeating ISIS,” Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway wrote to HuffPost on Monday. “The armed Kurdish groups in Afrin are not defeat-ISIS coalition partners.”
For Kurdish officials who treat Afrin as an integral part of the society they’re building and defending, that distinction is meaningless. And they see Turkey’s desire to quash the region as the canary in the coal mine. Just as the epic battle to defend the town of Kobani from ISIS in 2014 became a seminal moment for Kurdish identity and dignity, the struggle over Afrin is dominating the thinking of the community’s leaders, as well as millions of Kurds outside Syria ― and they’re closely watching the Western response for portents of their future.
“Turkey is not only attacking and targeting Afrin. They want to target all of north Syria, including Arabs and Assyrians,” Sinam Mohamad, an international representative for the government of the YPG-controlled areas, argued at a recent event at the Washington Kurdish Institute.
Even the American-crafted proxy force in Syria is defying the Trump administration line, not going so far as to threaten a major rift but warning that the crisis could force it to define its priorities differently from those of the U.S.
“The Syrian Democratic Forces in their meetings with the U.S. officials and the [anti-ISIS] coalition officials have been very clear that although they will be seeking support in Afrin, they will not be waiting for that to respond and to resist this aggression,” Renas Xan, a local teacher who’s an adviser to the U.S.-backed group’s media team, told HuffPost this week, noting that could mean some forces get redirected toward Afrin and away from recently captured, still vulnerable ISIS strongholds. “There is a general mobilization … that everyone above 18 years old available to support the resistance of any sort should take up arms or help in any way possible to defend their people.”
The reaction shouldn’t come as a surprise to the Americans who have been talking to and working with the Kurds for close to four years. The YPG first consolidated its power in the Kurdish areas ― which they call Rojava ― after Assad effectively ceded control in 2012 to focus on fighting Arab rebels. As the militia gained fighting experience, recruits and eventually American support, the goal of connecting Afrin with Kurdish regions further east was a constant.
“I remember when they liberated the Tal Abyad territory between Kobani and Jazira, they were telling me back then that they were planning to go to Afrin,” said Amy Austin Holmes, a scholar at the Wilson Center think tank and professor at American University in Cairo who has interviewed scores of fighters in the region. (Kobani and Jazira are the two other mainly Kurdish areas in northern Syria; Tal Abyad is a largely Arab area that lies between them that the Kurds captured from ISIS in 2015.)
But the U.S. wanted the Kurds to prioritize taking ISIS territory. So they did, turning their focus to Arab-majority areas farther south. Implicit in that bargain was that the U.S. would ― eventually ― respect the Kurds’ own priorities. It’s hard to know how costly the breaking of that promise will be.
“Afrin is such a hugely symbolic matter,” said Nick Heras, a Middle East Security fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “The stovepiping of Afrin from the main counter-ISIS campaign in eastern Syria by the U.S. is a risky line of action.”
Taking Credit ― And Responsibility
The Trump administration seems to know what it wants ― an end to the fighting ― but not how to get it.
Its most serious move so far was an apparently harsh call between Erdogan and Trump on Jan. 24. The readout said Trump repeatedly praised the U.S.-Turkey partnership but warned that Erdogan was proceeding down a path that could result in ”conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
U.S. officials have also said they will defend another strategic area under Kurd-dominated rule that Erdogan has threatened, the Manbij region east of Afrin.
But none of that has halted the Turkish bombing and slow advance.
Critics are already eager to assign blame.
“My general sense on Afrin is that it shows the dysfunction of Trump’s national security process,” Colin Kahl, one of the top Obama-era officials managing the relationship with Turkey, wrote in an email this week to HuffPost.
He pointed out that the administration set the stage for the clash by Trump first tellingErdogan, in November, that the U.S. would cut off heavy weapons to the YPG, and officials then talking about an extended U.S. presence alongside the YPG-dominated forces less than two months later.
But the reality is that both administrations made the pattern of choices that’s resulted in this breaking point ― and that it originated under Obama, whose aides made little progress on preventing Erdogan from being a spoiler other than complaining about him. Kahl described the Obama administration’s view in an extensive piece last year in which he said Erdogan created the risk of Turkish-Kurd violence by backing Arab militants, including extremists, more interested in fighting Assad than ISIS, therefore forcing Washington to rely on and strengthen the YPG.
Now, officials say the response is the responsibility of the State Department ― a bad sign, given that the agency just lost its No. 3 official, is facing unprecedented morale and staffing challenges, and counts as its top diplomat on such issues the special counter-ISIS envoy, Obama holdover Brett McGurk, who is deeply distrusted by both the Turks and Kurds. A State Department official contacted by HuffPost did not address multiple specific questions about the agency’s response, simply saying it discourages the fighting and respects Turkish concerns.
And the absence of a clear strategy makes the Washington conversation ripe for distortion. Turkey is already running “a slick disinformation campaign” on Capitol Hill to prevent the Kurds’ concerns even getting a fair hearing, said Sarah Stern of the Endowment for Middle East Truth advocacy group, which is helping set up congressional meetings for the Kurdish region’s representatives.
What U.S. officials are sure of is how much is at stake. ”Increased violence in Afrin distracts from efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS,” Rankine-Galloway of the Pentagon told HuffPost. “It also has significant potential to increase civilian displacement, refugee flows and casualties.”
Mohamad, the Kurdish official who’s still in Washington, listed other worries: more power for radical Turkey-backed groups and broader distrust that could cause conflict between Kurds and Arabs all across the areas the U.S. has delivered from ISIS.
For her, the issue is personal ― her husband and children are still in Afrin.
But ever the diplomat, she pushes loftier arguments.
“The U.S.,” Mohamad said, “has a moral obligation.”