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The Problem With Taking Sides in Syria

Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White released a statement [1] earlier this month announcing that President Trump had authorized the Defense Department to “equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS” in Raqqa. This week the group began to take delivery of arms shipments from U.S. forces in the region. Neither White nor the president has addressed how this action fits into U.S. grand strategy, how the White House plans to navigate the acute sensitivities of U.S. relations with NATO ally Turkey—which considers the SDF a terror group—or what the administration seeks as an end state once ISIS is driven out. This lack of concern over such major elements of a campaign plan continues a troubling lack of strategic understanding at the national level.

The announcements give the impression—intentionally, no doubt—that the desire to arm the Kurds is a relatively simple matter of supporting the most effective fighting force in Syria that can drive ISIS from their self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. The unstated assumption is that militarily defeating ISIS in Raqqa may spell the end of the Islamic State, and U.S. national security would therefore be safeguarded. In all probability, the outcome of that battle, while satisfying, will not substantially improve U.S. national security. The fight itself, however counterintuitive it seems, may degrade U.S. security.

The push to destroy ISIS in Raqqa is understandable. President Trump made the defeat of ISIS a major campaign pledge, and he is intent on keeping that promise. But the higher level strategic objective needs to be safeguarding the American homeland using the most effective means possible. On the surface, going after ISIS wherever they are would seem a good thing. But the approach chosen to battle ISIS is critical, as not every tactic leads to a positive strategic outcome. Supporting the Kurds in Syria has serious second- and third-order effects, some of which could have a negative impact on U.S. security.

There is little doubt the Kurdish fighters in the SDF, called the People’s Protection Units (or YPG in their Kurdish rendering), are the most effective of virtually every fighting group in Syria. They are the best trained, most disciplined, and have attained the most battlefield success. Whether they can drive an entrenched ISIS out of a major urban area without even greater U.S. assistance remains to be seen. What is already known, however, is that this support is angering our only NATO ally in the region, Turkey.


Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was livid about [2] the U.S. decision to increase support to the SDF. Erdogan said of the reports, “I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately… We want to believe that our allies would prefer be side by side with ourselves rather than with the terror groups.” Turkey’s presidential advisor, Ilnur Cevik, was far less restrained in his response.

“If [the U.S. pushes] further, our troops may not care about Americans anymore,” he said [3] on May 4. “Suddenly, by accident, a few rockets may well hit them.” In other words, our NATO ally is threatening to bomb American soldiers. This implied threat must be taken seriously—U.S. soldiers in combat vehicles have been patrolling [4] between Turkish forces and SDF in the vicinity of Raqqa to prevent clashes.

A few important strategic questions need to be answered: Are American strategic interests served by supporting the SDF to drive ISIS out of Raqqa, if doing so ruptures our relations with Turkey? Another question is equally important: Can the United States afford to give into Turkish pressure and abandon the Kurds who are possibly the most effective militia in the region, and a group of people who have a long, positive history with America?

Already Kurdish leaders are nervous, wondering what will happen to them after ISIS is driven out of Raqqa. Will Turkey feel free to attack the YPG again as they did [5] earlier this year? Once the Kurds have accomplished America’s tactical objectives in Raqqa, will we continue to protect them from Turkey? And possibly more important, will the threat to U.S. security by ISIS be diminished by their downfall in Raqqa? The answer may surprise you: Senior American officials have warned that after the loss of its territorial holdings, ISIS might represent a greater threat to the country than is currently the case.

In March, then-FBI Director James Comey spoke [6] at a national security conference in Austin, Texas. In his remarks, he said that once ISIS has been “crushed” and their territories liberated, hundreds or thousands of former ISIS fighters would flee Iraq and Syria. “Where are they going?” he asked. “They’re going to Western Europe, they’re going to Southeast Asia, they’re going to North Africa. Then what are they going to do there? These are the most radical of the radical who are not just radical in orientation but have been equipped with military battlefield experience and tactics.”

No longer burdened with trying to hold territory, it is possible ISIS may exert more effort into planning attacks against the U.S. Many American leaders and pundits have claimed we used military force abroad so that we could fight terrorists “over there [7] so we don’t have to fight them here.” As we’ve learned over the last 16 years, that simply isn’t true.

In the Daily Beast earlier this month, former FBI officer Ali Soufan noted that on 9/11 there were likely no more than a few hundred al-Qaeda members. But after invading and beginning what turned out to be a 16-and-counting counterinsurgency fight, al-Qaeda membership has exploded worldwide. “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is thought to have more than 4,000 fighters under its command,” Soufan wrote [8]. In Somalia, al-Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab [9] “has more than 7,000. In Syria, al Nusra boasts more than 20,000.”

It could well be that Washington risks a rupture with Turkey and loses American blood, yet eventually drives ISIS out of Raqqa—only to see the global threat of ISIS expand in the process.

It’s equally possible that the U.S. suffers a rupture in our relations with a NATO ally, irrespective of whether ISIS is defeated or not. Before the president and his closest advisors increase American military engagement in Syria, they should step back and conduct a sober assessment of the strategic environment. Otherwise, we may see yet another terror group escape to rise in larger numbers another day.

Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis (Ret.) is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former officer in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "The Problem With Taking Sides in Syria"

#1 Comment By dutchnational On May 31, 2017 @ 6:35 am

The first almost spoken case here is that it is most likely better to let IS kill arabs, kurds, jezedis and whomever they like, just as long as they let the US be.

Turkey already found out that matters don’t work that way.

In case IS will get the chance to consolidate its hold, to reinforce, they will attack evrything and everybody they can reach, the socalled Jihad. So IS as a state must be gutted. It will not rid you of terrorism, but it will rid you of a destroyed mideast, maybe even Europe.

The second unspoken case is we should, in the name e of geoplitical interest, overlook Turkeys descent into islamo fascism, into ethnic cleansing and expansionism.

We condemm it when Russia is landgrabbing and accept when Turkey is landgrabbing.

Maybe this piece is the a demonstration of why ex colonels should not be involved in politics.

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On May 31, 2017 @ 10:23 am

The interests of the Sunnis of Iraq were represented by the Saddam Hussein. The toppling of Hussein by the 2003 US invasion — and the resultant coming to power of a Shiite government in Baghdad – led to the rise of two Sunni organizations that Saddam Hussein had never allowed into Iraq, first Al Qaeda and then ISIS.

As the US-installed Shiite government of Iraq lost control of Anbar province and the western Iraqi border region – and as the Syrian civil war intensified — ISIS and Al Qaeda (Al-Nusra) established strong footholds in both western Iraq and eastern Syria.

Colin P. Clarke & Chad C. Serena wrote in The National Interest (May 29): “…It is highly likely that ISIS will not be defeated in the coming months and years. Even where ISIS is displaced or temporarily dislodged from physical territory, disenfranchised Sunni Arab populations will probably continue sympathizing with the group’s objective to establish a caliphate. Those not ideologically disposed to ISIS still perceive it a more suitable protector of Sunni interests than either the Syrian or Iraqi governments.”

In other words, US military involvement in the displacement of ISIS from Mosul in Iraq, or from Raqqa in Syria, doesn’t even begin to touch the critical underlying issue of Sunni Arab disenfranchisement.

Who will represent the interests of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria – whether it is ISIS or another organization or government – is far too difficult, too complex a puzzle for US military intervention to solve. Better for the US to leave the sorting out of ISIS to regional powers that want to be involved in the Iraq/Syria quagmire that US policies have created.

Those who think the US should stay to “defeat ISIS” – whatever they think that “defeating ISIS” means — would do well to heed Lt. Col. Davis’s warning: “The unstated assumption is that militarily defeating ISIS in Raqqa may spell the end of the Islamic State, and U.S. national security would therefore be safeguarded. In all probability, the outcome of that battle, while satisfying, will not substantially improve U.S. national security. The fight itself, however counterintuitive it seems, may degrade U.S. security…Senior American officials have warned that after the loss of its territorial holdings, ISIS might represent a greater threat to the country than is currently the case.”

The US should get out militarily. No US national interests are served by staying. In fact US national interests may be harmed by staying.

#3 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On May 31, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

Arming the Kurds is an opening gambit for seeding chaos in post-ISIS Syria.

The goal of the neocons was always to atomize Arab countries into feuding state-lets too weak to threaten Israel. In Syria, the Assad government, with Russian help, is close to finishing off ISIS and the assortment of thugs known as the “Free Syrian Army”. Left unchecked, Assad will consolidate his rule, which is the last thing the neocons want. But if the Kurds are armed by the US, post-ISIS Syria will once again be bogged down in a war between the Kurds and the Syrians (and perhaps the Turks), which is a very desirable outcome from the point of view of the neocons.

To check Shia control of Iraq, ISIS was created and supported by the neocons and the Saudis. To check Alawite control of Syria, the Kurds are being armed by the same gang.

As always, when Washington talks about arming freedom fighters, you need to look at the gangsters benefiting from it.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 31, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

“A few important strategic questions need to be answered: . . . ‘

With all due respect to your experience, expertise and advocacy. No. These questions don’t need to be asked. At least they don’t need to be asked again.

They have been answered and answered repeatedly. We should not be engaged in regime change. There is absolutely to case to cause there.

We are continuing to make a bad situation, horrible. As for the Kurds, they should stop meddling and figure how they are going to convince the Sunnis and the Shia to permit a Kurdish state for a people whose only interest is siphoning off of what others have built. In this case, carving out territory from Iraq proper for a new state, that is confiscating Iraqi oil.

The US first, I seem to recall that being a major reason for the gentleman’s election. There is nothing valorous about what we have done and continue to do in Syria.

It’s not just illegal, it’s morally reprehensible.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 31, 2017 @ 1:50 pm

correction: “There is absolutely to case to cause there.”

There is absolutely no case to cause there.

#6 Comment By Mark Thomason On May 31, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

Our most capable anti-ISIS partner in Syria has a 30-year history of terrorist war against Turkey. They have a lot of experience fighting long wars.

That is not a problem Turkey made up all by itself.

Sure it would be better for everyone if Turkey somehow made peace with its Kurds, but it has failed to do that for decades under many different governments, not just Erdogan.

Meanwhile, that the Kurds are all we can find in Syria is proof that we are failing to convince any Syrians to fight both sides at the same time, ISIS and Assad. We are asking the impossible, and finding for it only an embattled alienated minority to add these two wars to its long war against Turkey.

#7 Comment By JP Melville On June 2, 2017 @ 8:23 pm

As an attending Quaker in Ottawa, Canada, I still wonder why those who hold the purse strings do not quite simply stop the flow of arms.

We can strangle IS with a “no armaments” policy.

There are a few others higher up on the list whom we can strangle in such a peaceable way.

This would take an “America First” policy to task. The US (and Canada – never mind other states)would truly have to invest in a new economic order that benefits Americans.

Not that we undo our investments in defense spending.

We simply do not arm others in the financial interests of a few of our own domestic industrial companies.

I distrust “who dunnit” arguments when it comes to politics. This is bickering in the worst of its forms. We have next to 8 billion people on the planet.

Time to change our piper’s tune.

#8 Comment By SteveJ On June 6, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

At this point in time, you are going to have to choose between Assad and ISIS — perhaps with a dose of al qaeda thrown in with ISIS.

Those are the two options at this time.

#9 Comment By Michael Kenny On June 6, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

One of the positive side-effects of Putin’s antics in Ukraine and Syria is that he has driven NATO closer together. Turkey is not going to break with NATO because that would make it vulnerable to Putin, with his pseudo-historical dreams of controlling the Turkish Straits. NATO won’t break with Turkey precisely because that would drive Erdogan into Putin’s arms. Thus, Putin is the lynchpin. Take down Putin, Assad falls and Turkey no longer has a problem. Leave Putin where he is and the problem just festers, waiting to be solved another day.