As ISIS spread its caliphate to large swaths of the Middle East in 2014, the Obama administration and its European allies faced a challenge: how to meet this new threat in a political environment that disfavored large military deployments à la Iraq and Afghanistan. The governments decided to confront the terror group “by, with, and through” local and regional forces who would do most of the frontline fighting. Their experience suggests that the challenges of this form of engagement should be considered more carefully before they do so again.
In September 2014, the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition launched an operational relationship in Syria with the Kurdish armed group, the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG. One commentator wrote, “The midwife was tactical necessity. Larger issues of national security objectives, overall strategy for Syria, and an important bilateral relationship with a NATO partner were made subordinate to the singular focus on attacking ISIS.”
U.S. and UK leaders knew that that Turkey would object to supporting the YPG, with its links to the insurgent Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, so they had initially worked with the Ankara government on a joint plan to fight ISIS. But when it became clear that building the war effort around Turkey would require as many as 20,000 U.S. troops on the ground, the coalition turned to the YPG, who were already fighting ISIS in Kurdish-majority areas. Predictably, the decision put Turkey’s relationship with the United States and other European members of the coalition into a sharp dive.
Trump’s policies only exacerbated these fragile and worsening tensions. In May 2017, the Trump administration directly armed the YPG — by then, part of the Arab-infused Syrian Democratic Forces — for the impending fight for Raqqa. Turkey responded a few months later by agreeing to purchase Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system, making the first NATO ally to seek to incorporate into its air-defense network a piece of gear from the alliance’s main adversary. In January 2018, the U.S. began efforts to build a Kurdish-led border security force that could have positioned “thousands of Kurdish militia fighters along Turkey’s southern border.” This prompted Turkey to send troops to take control of Syria’s Afrin district of Syria.
Then, last December, Trump announced the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. His staff sought to delay the pullout to buy “time for U.S. diplomats to secure a long-term arrangement that might reasonably satisfy Turkey” while at the same time protecting the SDF.
In October, Trump’s patience ran out. He ordered U.S. troops to evacuate the Turkey-Syria border area, allowing Turkish forces to push Kurdish groups away. By last Wednesday, it was estimated that 259 Kurdish fighters and 120 Kurdish civilians had been killed, while 176,000 have been forcibly displaced in a region that is already struggling to offer protection for forced migrants.
Beyond the humanitarian and strategic cost of these developments, many have warned that they may also facilitate the resurgence of ISIS. This is especially true since many of the detention centres that hold thousands of IS fighters are run by the SDF. As the Kurdish forces re-focused their attention on fighting Turkey and – in some cases – were driven out of their territory, reports have already emerged of mass escapes from these detention centers. There is therefore a particular risk that these IS fighters may join the battlefield that has now engulfed northern Syria. Ketti Davison of the Institute for the Study of War wrote, “It took three years for ISIS to form after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq; expect ISIS 2.0 to arise within months.”
The recent events in Syria should be seen as shocking but not surprising. Trump’s recent decisions allowed a quick and dramatic flaring of violence, but his policies alone did not cause the insecurity and conflict. Policies that preceded him and created uncertainly and fragility in the region did. Two years before Trump was sworn in, the Obama administration and its allies prioritized short-term military objectives and seemingly ignored the political consequences of doing so.
The danger now is that the U.S. and other governments, rather than acknowledging the risks and dilemmas associated with “by, with, and through” and other forms of proxy war, will continue to present remote warfare as a low-cost, low-risk form of engagement. As the international community unites in outrage at Trump’s policies once again, it would be naïve and even dangerous to see them as a complete break from the past. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can put to bed the myth of risk-free war.