By FPI Policy Fellow Evan Moore
Last week marked the sixth anniversary of the Syrian conflict. What began in March 2011 as a peaceful popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad has become a war of torture chambers, massmurder, open chemical warfare, and indiscriminate bombing. Assad’s war against his own people is not just a moral atrocity, but also a strategic catastrophe for the United States. While ISIS has suffered major setbacks, Islamist extremism is by no means defeated in Syria. Indeed, al Qaeda is amassing unprecedented strength and poses a growing threat to the American homeland. As the war enters its seventh year, it poses a greater danger to the Trump administration than it did to his predecessor’s.
Determined to restrict American commitments in the Middle East, President Obama passively observed the early stages of war – only calling for Assad to go five months after his violent attempts to suppress the Syrian protest movement began, allowing Assad to use increasingly lethal means in his campaign against the opposition, refusing his cabinet’s recommendation to support the moderate armed opposition forces, and failing to uphold his own promise to militarily intervene after the regime’s August 2013 sarin gas attack. Only the spectacular rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 compelled President Obama to finally take limited military action in Syria. However, in many ways, ISIS is only a symptom of the Syrian war – its cause remains the barbaric attempt by Bashar al-Assad to cling to power, even at the expense of half a million lives.
Risky Partners Against ISIS
At the end of his administration, Mr. Obama finally began to coordinate and support local forces’ campaign against ISIS. In northern Syria, the U.S. has helped build the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a coalition of 35,000-50,000 fighters from both the Kurdish YPG militia and a contingent of Sunni Arab fighters – which is campaigning toward the ISIS capital of Raqqa.
However, while this militia has enjoyed stunning success in routing ISIS from their territory across northern Syria, the United States cannot rely on the SDF to be its primary proxy force. As former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and Soner Cagaptay warn, “Ankara correctly sees the YPG as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish nationalist movement Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with whom Turkey has waged an internal conflict for decades, particularly intense since 2015.” Ankara is fearful that it could lose control over its southern border to a de-facto Kurdish state, and are wary of America’s increasing cooperation and support of the YPG. There are further concerns that using the YPG against ISIS in areas traditionally held by Sunni Arabs will ignite a sectarian conflict.