US Policy In Northeast Syria: Toward A Strategic Reconfiguration – Analysis

Amid escalating regional tensions since October 7 last year and reports of American contemplations of troop withdrawal from Syria, the US administration should reassess its Syria policy, and consider a long-term, minimalist presence coupled with robust political and diplomatic efforts in the interest of regional security and peace.

The ongoing Middle East tensions underscore the US role in regional stability and the importance of US allies in countering threats. The northeastern (NE) region of Syria, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), plays a crucial role in regional security by preventing the resurgence of ISIS and challenging Iranian aspirations for regional dominance.

However, the United States has shown signs of strategic disarray in addressing this issue, necessitating a fresh approach that goes beyond narrow counterterrorism efforts to recognize the broader strategic value of NE Syria and the SDF. This necessitates a comprehensive reconfiguration of US strategy across various levels to bolster the SDF-controlled region as the core component of its objective of keeping ISIS at bay.

Four key areas require simultaneous attention in a multifaceted strategy: combating ISIS, enhancing local governance, managing relations between NE Syria and Turkey, and engaging with Damascus. A novel US strategy should focus on enhancing the region’s political and economic governance, while seeking to mitigate hostilities between Turkey and the SDF and foster a mutually beneficial relationship between the two by promoting trade and business ties. Moreover, the strategy should advocate for a political agreement between the Assad regime and the SDF to lay the groundwork for broader stability in Syria and ensure continued US influence in the region.

The Origins of the Counterterrorism Focus and its Limitations

The partnership between the United States and Syrian Kurds emerged from a shared commitment to combat ISIS following failed US engagement with other Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey and Gulf Arab states. The Battle of Kobani in late 2014 marked the beginning of an effective collaboration between the United States and the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces. This alliance evolved into the SDF, uniting the People’s Protection Forces with some Arab opposition groups and tribal forces, culminating in ISIS’s territorial defeat in 2019. However, tensions arose as Turkey and its Syrian allies seized key territory in NE Syria, mainly Kurdish-majority areas, in 2018 and 2019, leading the SDF to divert resources and attention to counter this threat.

Despite the loss of ISIS’s territorial caliphate, the group remains active in Syria and beyond. Official estimates by the US Central Command and the United Nations put the number of ISIS fighters between 2,500 and 7,000 as of late 2023 and early 2024. According to the Counter Extremism Project, March 2024 marked the deadliest month of ISIS’s insurgency in the Syrian desert since late 2017, with eighty-four Syrian soldiers and forty-four civilians killed. The escalation of ISIS activity coincides with reports of potential US withdrawal from Syria (denied by the Biden administration) and ongoing Turkish attacks in NE Syria, raising questions as to whether the group has been emboldened by these developments.

Of particular concern is the presence of around 10,000 ISIS prisoners in SDF-controlled areas, in addition to more than 45,000 ISIS family members in camps, posing a significant risk of resurgence if stability wavers. This situation highlights the urgent need for sustained US engagement in NE Syria to prevent ISIS from regaining strength and posing global security risks.

However, to achieve this, the United States must complement its ISIS-focused policy with a broader local-regional strategy, ensuring the success of counterterrorism efforts in Syria and the wider region. Continued US presence is imperative to safeguard against ISIS resurgence, necessitating a comprehensive approach to address complex security dynamics.

Improving Governance: But First Transforming Turkey into a “Friend”

Turkey poses the primary threat to NE Syria. Deteriorating economic circumstances, primarily due to rising levels of violence by Turkey, threaten to upend the fragile order that took hold after ISIS’s defeat. Turkey has recently intensified airstrikes on vital civilian infrastructure in northern Syria, targeting power plants, gas stations, and local businesses to make the area ungovernable and unlivable. The resulting poverty and brutalization from such a reality provide the ideal material conditions for terrorism. This puts Turkey in the powerful position of holding the key to stability in NE Syria. Despite the current hostilities, the dynamics between Turkey and the ruling Kurdish party in northern Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have not always been antagonistic. In the initial years following 2012, when the PYD assumed control over Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria, there were sporadic meetings between Turkish and PYD officials. Amid an ongoing “peace process” between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the 2013 to 2015 period, Turkish officials engaged with the PYD, albeit cautiously. This was quite likely because Turkey viewed the PYD as an extension of PKK—regardless of the veracity of such claims or the extent of PYD-PKK relationship.

During this period, Turkey did not openly oppose efforts by its allied Kurdistan Democratic Party in neighboring Iraq to diversify the emerging Kurdish administration in northern Syria. These efforts involvedextensive negotiations between the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC), a pro-Kurdish Democratic Party coalition of PYD rivals, resulting in two unsuccessful agreements aimed at establishing a joint administration. The failure of the talks that continued into 2021 stemmed from PYD’s reluctance to engage in substantial power-sharing and reported Turkish pressure on KNC in later years to halt such talks.

But what ultimately led to the breakdown of the relationship between the PYD-SDF and Ankara was the collapse of the Turkey-PKK peace process in 2015. Subsequently, Turkey adopted a hostile stance towards the PKK and groups it perceived as PKK affiliates, including the PYD-SDF. This shift coincided with an unprecedented expansion of PYD-SDF territory under US support, covering nearly one-third of Syrian land predominantly east of the Euphrates River. Ankara responded with military operations, including Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and subsequent invasions in 2018 and 2019, displacing large Kurdish and non-Muslim populations from significant portions of northern Syria. Over the past couple of years, Turkey has intensified air campaigns and artillery shelling on vital civilian infrastructure in northern Syria, aiming to render the area ungovernable and, arguably, uninhabitable. These attacks have significantly destabilized northeastern Syria, creating a highly volatile environment vulnerable to groups like ISIS awaiting an opportunity to re-emerge.

To achieve progress in NE Syria, it is essential, though admittedly quite challenging, to foster understanding between Turkey and the SDF/NE Syria administration. Recent regional developments offer a window for this effort. The SDF recognizes that without reconciliation with Turkey, their region’s survival is compromised.

Counterintuitively, despite Erdogan’s recent military declarations against the SDF, his Justice, and Development Party’s weakened position in Turkish politics following the March 2024 municipal elections could prompt a review of its Kurdish policy, driven by the need for new allies. Erdogan could either opt for partnering up with secular ultranationalist or Islamist Turkish groups, or reach some sort of understanding with the main pro-Kurdish DEM Party—pulling off the latter is admittedly more difficult, but not impossible.

Kurdish voters hold significant sway not only in Turkey’s Kurdish region but also in major cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, where Kurds form substantial voting blocs. A revitalized peace process within Turkey, though a daunting task to realize, would ideally foster some reconciliation between the Turkish government and SDF/NE Syria administration. The United States could facilitate this by encouraging dialogue between the Turkish government, the pro-Kurdish People’s Equality and Democracy Party, and eventually the PKK, including its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan. The evidence from the Turkish peace process in the early 2010s suggests that even with ongoing challenges, positive political gestures and dialogue during peace negotiations could alleviate Turkish hostility toward NE Syria.

NE Syria’s oil and gas wealth not only could fuel economic recovery, but incentivize shifts in behavior for Turkey and the SDF/NE Syria administration as well. Turkey’s proximity and technological prowess, combined with NE Syria’s urgent need for foreign investment, could drive improved Turkish and Syrian Kurdish relations. The exemptions from the Caesar Act sanctions that the US government issued for NE Syria in May 2022 could be leveraged to this end. SDF Commander General Mazloum Abdi expressed his appreciation for the move at the time, highlighting its potential impact in rebuilding infrastructure and supporting the economy by welcoming all companies to invest in the region. Building on Turkish investment and trade ties in Iraqi Kurdistan, albeit imperfect, could serve as a blueprint for fostering trade relations between NE Syria and Turkey, making Turkey a stakeholder in NE Syria’s stability and prosperity.

The domestic political conditions of NE Syria also matter. To encourage a milder Turkish stance, SDF/NE Syria administration should also share power with important actors that are acceptable to Turkey, like the KNC and Arab Syria’s Tomorrow Movement (Tayar al-Ghad al-Suri). The United States should advocate for inclusive and transparent elections and a rewrite of the region’s constitution to reflect diverse aspirations. While integrating the armed factions of the KNC and Tomorrow Movement into local security forces would represent an important step toward placating Turkey, it’s essential to avoid dividing the region’s security and defense forces into parallel formations to prevent lasting structural barriers to peace and defense against threats like ISIS.

Assad and Allies: An Opportunity for a Political Deal?

The escalating instability in SDF-controlled areas presents an opening for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and various pro-Iran and Assad militias. The Syrian regime and its allies exploit divisions between the SDF and local Arab tribes. The possibility of a US withdrawal has emboldened these groups to undermine the SDF’s southern and southwestern territories, exacerbating tensions.

Assad has largely prevailed in the twelve-year civil war, buoyed by support from Iran and Russia. A resolution to the Syrian conflict necessitates Assad’s participation, as outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The US government also supports implementing this resolution as the ultimate roadmap to resolving the Syrian conflict. Washington should push for political engagement between the SDF and Assad’s government, either as part of the UN-mediated process (though that appears inactive now), or through other means. With no significant threat to the Assad regime’s continuity, the United States should support the NE Syria administration in negotiating autonomy and decentralization with Damascus. The failure to support negotiations will be counterproductive for US policy in Syria and signals indifference toward US allies in NE Syria and the region’s future.

There are indications of a shift in the US government’s approach, with reports suggesting consideration of brokering a political agreement between the SDF and Assad, primarily to counter ISIS in the long term. Assad has claimed secret talks with the United States over recent years.

As far as a political deal between Damascus and SDF is concerned, the primary challenge is the Assad government’s lack of genuine interest in such a deal due to the belief that the United States will leave and Damascus can overrun SDF areas after that. Hence, Assad has been unwilling to engage in serious dialogue with the SDF despite sporadic pressure from Russia and the SDF’s repeated efforts.

However, the United States has considerable leverage to deploy here as part of a strategic overhaul of its policy in Syria. In exchange for dialogue and a political settlement where Assad recognizes the Kurdish-led autonomous administration, the United States should implement a calibrated and gradual sanctions-relief strategy for Assad’s government. This could also reduce Assad’s dependence on Tehran relatively. A decentralization agreement could enable the NE Syria administration to retain administrative and security control while permitting limited deployment of Assad’s troops along certain border areas, akin to current arrangements where some Syrian Army forces are deployed between SDF and Turkish forces. Moreover, arrangements regarding the extraction and sale of oil and gas, possibly in a joint manner, alongside expanded trade between the two parties, could be negotiated and incorporated into such an agreement. Washington wields considerable leverage through its troop presence, sanctions policy (Caesar Act), and strong ties with the SDF. A deal between the SDF and Assad holds the potential to enhance stability in NE Syria, bolstering the counter-ISIS effort in the process.

Significance and Benefit of a US Strategy Overhaul in Syria

The US policy in Syria necessitates a comprehensive recalibration that integrates counterterrorism efforts with the socio-political, economic, and regional diplomatic dynamics of NE Syria to combat terrorism effectively, ensure regional stability, and safeguard American and Western interests. To achieve these objectives, the United States must prioritize the governance, economic development, and security of the NE Syrian population while maintaining functional minimal relations between the SDF and neighboring powers like Turkey and Damascus.

A key aspect of this strategy involves acknowledging and addressing the local realities of NE Syria. Rather than pursuing a purely counterterrorism-focused approach detached from the region’s dynamics, the United States must recognize the interconnectedness of security, governance, economic development and diplomatic relations with neighbors. It is by supporting the governability and viability of NE Syria that the United States can prevent the resurgence of ISIS and other extremist groups.

While this approach may evoke memories of nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, NE Syria has already made significant progress in establishing military and political structures. Leveraging these existing foundations, Washington can use its diplomatic influence to bolster governance and foster some form of regional cooperation, as modest as it might turn out to be. This does not require a large-scale military intervention but rather a strategic engagement, with the existing 900 troops on the ground, aimed at supporting local governance structures and promoting stability.

A reconstituted policy like this holds significance within broader regional and global competitions and struggles beyond just Syria. In a rapidly evolving global landscape characterized by the emergence of a multipolar world order, reduced US involvement in the Middle East risks emboldening regional actors like Iran, Russia, and others. Iran, in particular, seeks to assert itself as a hegemonic power in the region, exploiting opportunities created by US disengagement. Given the broader Middle East’s strategic importance due to its energy resources and super-strategic transit routes (Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab straits and Suez Canal), a vacuum created by US withdrawal could have far-reaching implications for regional stability. This is how the broader (trans)regional significance of the Syria strategy should be viewed. A functional governance structure in NE Syria, with a population (both Kurds and Arabs) that is well organized, willing to, and capable of defending themselves, allows the United States to achieve its objectives in an important part of the region with a minimal military footprint and, potentially without the need for economic aid handouts. This approach not only helps prevent ISIS resurgence but also mitigates important threats to regional security.

Conversely, staying in Syria without a well-thought-out strategy—or worse yet withdrawing altogether—could lead to grave consequences, including the emergence of a chaotic power vacuum and intense regional competition between Turkey and its rebel allies on one side and the Syria-Iran-Russia axis and their militias on the other. Just as the Islamic State Khorasan Province has exploited US withdrawal and the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan to become the most active global wing of ISIS, ISIS in Syria and surrounding region would likely find breathing room and space for regrouping and launching a reinvigorated local insurgency with broader regional and global reach.

Check Also

How Corporations Are Fueling Geopolitical Tensions And Global Conflicts In The 21st Century – OpEd

Multinational corporations with global reach are increasingly getting entangled in conflicts and geopolitical rivalries by …