Washington’s insistence on staying in Syria under the pretext of “containing ISIS” is rather weak.
The Iranian drone strike against the American military base in northern Syria that killed one American contractor and wounded six servicemen has once again called into question the purpose of the American presence, with some 900 troops, in the country. The official reasoning, according to the Pentagon chief, Gen. Mark A. Milley, is “to counter [the Islamic State].” Furthermore, the policymakers in Washington have stated that the United States should stay in Syria to “contain and roll back Iranian influence … also protecting Israel.” Whereas the two objectives may sound legitimate, the ways by which the United States implements them are inherently problematic and will beget more problems, not only for Washington but for the region as well.
ISIS has posed a much more immediate threat to the regional states and actors than it has to Washington, which weakens the argument that the United States is in Syria to counter ISIS. By design, ISIS is an extremist Sunni organization that during its reign directed its attacks primarily against the Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria, explicitly engaging in a Shia genocide. This makes the organization a prime adversary for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iran and its proxies, who are Shias. The pro-Iranian militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria played a great role in rolling back ISIS. Ironically, Washington has indirectly allowed Iranian influence in the region to strengthen by helping eliminate an anti-Shia group like ISIS, just as it did by removing a staunch anti-Iran figure, Saddam Hussein, and fighting the anti-Iran Taliban in Afghanistan.
ISIS has declared Turkey “the Wilayat Turkey” (a part of its alleged caliphate) and issued a death warrant for the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his cooperation with “the Crusaders” (NATO) in the fight against ISIS. The terror organization is known to have carried out numerous suicide bombings in Turkey that cost the lives of dozens of Turks.
All this considered, Washington’s insistence on staying in Syria under the pretext of “containing ISIS” is rather weak. Every actor in the region considers ISIS an existential threat and has a stake in eliminating it. If anything, Washington should have cooperated with its NATO ally Turkey, a regional power that has formidable economic, political, and military clout, and its proxies. Such a partnership could have maintained U.S. power projection without risking a direct confrontation with regional adversaries such as Iran and the probability of initiating another “forever war” that would have America bogged down in the Middle East. This was seen with the assassination of the Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020, for which Iran retaliated by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq where more than 100 US troops suffered brain injuries.
However, a series of mistakes Washington made in 2014-2015 not only cost it Turkey, a valuable ally, but also resulted in America’s unjustified presence in Syria. At the height of the ISIS threat, the Obama administration failed to adopt a clear plan for its defeat and the toppling of Assad. The confused U.S. agencies began to support different opposition groups each having different agendas. The CIA began to train and equip the pro-Turkey Sunni opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose main goal was to topple Assad and fight ISIS. The Pentagon, in contrast, propped up the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s arch foe, whose aim was primarily to fight ISIS and ultimately to gain autonomy, even independence, within Syria.
By 2015, Washington’s Syrian plan was in shambles such that the FSA and the YPG turned against each other, while at the same time separately fighting ISIS. Eventually, the same year, Washington decided to abandon the Sunni FSA in favor of the YPG, and to relinquish the idea of toppling Assad, an Iranian ally, a decision that coincided with Obama’s Iran rapprochement. Not surprisingly, having seen the American ambiguity and weakness, in the Summer of 2015, Russian president Vladimir Putin descended into Syria to save Russian interests and Assad from being toppled, which resulted in retaliatory genocidal campaigns against the anti-Assad Syrian opposition and the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians, including the infamous 2017 chemical attack.
Are the YPG an Asset or Liability?
The Pentagon’s staunch support for the YPG brought about the question of countering Iranian influence in the region.
In Syria, the Pentagon heavily relies on the YPG, a majority Marxist Kurdish militant group, which as former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter put it, “has substantial ties with PKK … which is a terrorist organization in the eyes of the US and Turkish governments.” The YPG’s inability to counter Iran’s influence stems from two reasons: first, the YPG and the PKK have had organic ties with Iran due to their aligned regional goals; and second, Washington is making the same mistake in Syria that it did in Afghanistan—nation building.
YPG/PKK – Iran Ties
Iran, which has historically pursued adverse policies against Turkey, providedthe PKK with a safe haven not only in Iran but also in Iraq. Tehran deniedAnkara’s request for a cross-border operation into the Iranian Qandil Mountains, where the PKK’s upper echelon is believed to reside.
Likewise, the PKK and Tehran have cooperated against their mutual adversary, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the strongest faction in Iraqi Kurdistan. Therefore, given their long-term strategic goals, the PKK’s top commanders, who also have control over the YPG, want to exert extreme caution to not agitate Tehran. Thus, the PKK’s leaders don’t allow the United States to use their Syrian branch, the YPG, as foot soldiers against Iran’s proxies. Bassam Ishak, then the Washington representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, a political umbrella organization to which the YPG belongs and which represents the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), acknowledged that an all-out war with Iran would wreak havoc on them. Moreover, Nicholas Heras, the Center for a New American Security fellow who talked to SDF members in Syria said, “There is a deep concern within the SDF over the extent to which the United States is looking to use SDF forces as a counter to Iran in Syria.”
Washington’s Futile Effort: Nation Building in Syria
From a social, political, and economic point of view, the YPG autonomy project in Syria is unsustainable. The Pentagon is pouring billions of dollars to train and equip the YPG and facilitate its autonomous rule in northeastern Syria. But the predominantly leftist Kurdish YPG is alien to the region, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab with some Turcoman.
The YPG is known to have engaged in de-Arabization as it gained territory from ISIS, sowing further resentment, and breeding further intra-communal clashes. “By deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages, displacing their inhabitants with no justifiable military grounds, the Autonomous Administration is abusing its authority and brazenly flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes,” said Lama Fakih, senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International. Moreover, the YPG’s political wing, known as the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), has a reputation of persecuting those Kurds who don’t share their neo-Maoist worldview. Ibrahim Biro, the then-head of Syria’s Kurdish National Council, accused the PYD of being dictatorial. He was kidnapped by the PKK for opposing the YPG in Syria. The World Council of Arameans (WCA) has frequently condemned the YPG for closing their schools and kidnapping and conscripting Aramean Christian teenagers against their wills.
Furthermore, Turkey controls much of the vital water inflow in Syria that is necessary for agriculture and power, as well as trade. A prospective Kurdish YPG state will heavily rely on resources from Turkey, which sees the organization as an existential threat. Currently, the YPG is exclusively sustained by American taxpayers and a small amount of oil export that necessitates a fragile deal with the Assad regime.
It begs explanation why Washington is so insistent on investing in a pointless Kurdish nation-building exercise in Syria whereas the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq has much more wherewithal, from its own government to the central bank. Ironically, Washington in 2017 rejected Kurdish statehood in northern Iraq by not recognizing the region’s independence referendum. If the purpose is to counter ISIS and the Iranian influence via proxies, why has Washington not been investing in the Erbil government, which is extremely wary of the Iranian influence? Additionally, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces successfully fought against ISIS. To make things worse, by unconditionally supporting the YPG, Washington indirectly consolidates the PKK’s regional presence, which further complicates intra-Kurdish politics. The KRG in Erbil has long considered the PKK to be an existential threat. The friction escalated to the extent that the PKK began ambushing and killing members of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in 2021.
I believe Robert Pape, the renowned political scientist from the University of Chicago, is right: it is not the religious convictions but military occupations that create extremism and suicide bombers. After all, former British prime minister Tony Blair acknowledged that the Iraq War “helped give rise to ISIS.” It is not surprising that we don’t hear any more of those roadside bombs, or suicide bombings, after the United States departed from Afghanistan.