As the world watches the Syrian government’s relentless bombing of Ghouta, 300 miles to the east, the United States remains focused on eradicating the last vestiges of the Islamic State. On February 11, Secretary of Defense James Mattis stressed that, following the group’s defeat, there is no plan for a deeper U.S. commitment in Syria. Several weeks later on February 23, President Donald Trump echoed Mattis’s message, saying that the 1,700 to 2,000 U.S. troops in the country would “go home” after ISIS had been beaten.
Yet on February 7, just a few days before Mattis’s remarks, Major General James Jarrard, the commander of U.S. special forces in Syria, told the media that his mission is to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Syrian Kurdish militia-led force that has been instrumental in the fight against ISIS. The SDF, however, has enemies beyond ISIS that include Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies, as well as the Syrian government and its Iranian allies. In an interview with CNN on that same day, Lieutenant General Paul Funk, the commander of U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq, promised that Americans in the town of Manbij, which the Kurdish-led SDF captured in August 2016, would “defend themselves.” Both he and Jarrard were aiming their messages not at ISIS—which has been absent from Manbij for months—but at Turkey.
How such pledges square with the notion that the U.S. mission in Syria is limited to defeating ISIS is unclear. Defending the SDF from its enemies exceeds the parameters of an anti-ISIS campaign, not to mention the 2001 congressional authorization for use of military force against al-Qaeda. Yet the Trump administration’s proposed defense budget for 2019 aims to transform the SDF into a 35,000-man local security force, at a cost of another $300 million in 2019; this would come on top of the $393 million it plans to spend on ammunition and weapons for the group this fiscal year; the total amount set to be spent on the SDF this year is $500 million. The Trump administration also wants to erect a local government in eastern Syria to fight against ISIS and, should the need arise, the Syrian government. The message, it seems, is that Washington has big plans for the Syrian Kurds.
On January 11, David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, offered something of a preview of those plans. He told senators that, as the United States works to stabilize northeastern Syria, it would push for the “emergence of a different kind of local governance-based political structure” there. What might this entail? According to a State Department official I spoke to, this program will involve helping the SDF rebuild local government and vital infrastructure—a herculean task for the seven to 10 U.S. foreign service officers and aid officials Satterfield said would be deploying to northeastern Syria alongside U.S. soldiers. The Trump administration has, so far, said nothing publicly about strategies, benchmarks, or timelines for a project that, to a significant degree, smacks of nation-building.
The Trump administration is deepening its partnership with the SDF seemingly with little consideration for the full political or human consequences of such a choice. Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government, have all denounced the U.S. goal of building up local governments in eastern Syria. And Turkey, America’s problematic nato ally, is furious. The U.S. military customarily denies any links between the SDF and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s enemy. In his testimony, Satterfield acknowledged links between some of America’s Syrian-Kurdish militia allies and the PKK—in itself, a newsy admission—and asserted that the SDF’s leadership recognized it must change.
But any signs of such a shift are scant. For months in northeastern Syria, the SDF’s policy of forced conscription has aggravated relations between Arabs and Kurds and hampered rebuilding efforts. In mid-January, the killing of two Arabs in SDF custody inflamed tensions in Kurdish-dominated Manbij. On February 15, the local affiliate of the independent group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” reported that Kurdish SDF officials in two towns had ordered shopkeepers to close their stores and join demonstrations demanding that Turkey release Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader. After Turkey attacked the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, many SDF fighters left the battle against ISIS to fight the Turks, according to local and western journalists.
All of this raises the key question: What does the United States hope to achieve in Syria by investing so heavily in the SDF?
When pro-Assad elements, including Russian mercenaries, tried to recapture a key oilfield from the SDF on February 7, they were met with U.S. airstrikes. Pro-government forces have skirmished frequently with the SDF in the days since. If Washington’s sole objective in Syria was fighting ISIS, then it wouldn’t make any difference whether Assad or the SDF controlled the oilfields. In fact, it appears that what the United States really wants to do is deprive Assad of oil and gas revenues to extract political concessions from him. But this strategy ignores the obvious: The economic woes of Syrians won’t compel Assad to make any concessions—he is unmoved by their suffering.
Washington’s decision to anoint the SDF as its chief vehicle for achieving its broader aims is a perilous one. The Trump administration wants to believe the SDF is relatively democratic, when, instead, its behavior often alienates important local communities. It also wants the Turks to stop complaining about the SDF’s ties to the PKK, even though it knows the Turks aren’t totally wrong about the SDF. It wants Assad to leave the SDF alone to fight ISIS even as it deprives him of revenues and territory in the east. The Trump administration also hopes that Assad will make real concessions when he has never done so before—one of its most egregious acts of self-deception.
The United States appears ready and all too eager to bind its fate to one uncontrolled actor in a complex civil war without understanding how the other actors will respond. Russia has blasted the U.S. effort to establish a local Kurdish authority in eastern Syria, and believes Washington’s ultimate aim in Syria remains regime change; Iran also has vowed to end U.S. influence in Syria’s Kurdish region.
Earlier this month, I spoke to the House Foreign Affairs Committee about America’s current Syria policy. Most of the representatives asked questions about how to remove Assad or rid Syria of Iran. These were important questions in 2013 or 2014, but the balance in the war makes them irrelevant now. Today, the United States has a policy of incrementalism, working on behalf of one player in the Syrian morass. America’s adversaries will learn how better to attack U.S. forces and allies. With time, U.S. personnel will face greater risk while the deepening morass will demand either concession or escalation. The Trump administration and Congress would do well to come to terms with that reality.