Understanding US policy’s carefully chosen words on eastern Syria

by Dr. Seth Frantzman    


US policy-makers never expected to have a major role in eastern Syria. Their decision to lead a large, seventy-nation coalition, against the so-called Islamic State resulted in a kind of “mission creep” that led to eastern Syria. This is the context under which they came to support the Syrian Democratic Forces. Not out of a history of support for Kurdish rights in Syria, or out of any particular affection for the groups in the SDF. With the defeat of IS looming many questions are being raised about what comes next.

Some see the US decision to enter eastern Syria and work with Kurdish and Arab partner forces as a beginning that could lead to support for autonomy or other interests. But there is ample evidence from statements from Washington and the coalition that this is not the case. These words are chosen carefully to provide room for manoeuvre. On December 1st, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the US was “changing the composition of our forces,” in Syria. He went on to say that “the YPG is armed and as the coalition stops operations, then obviously you don’t need that, you need security forces, you need police forces…That’s local forces, that’s people who make certain that ISIS doesn’t come back.”

The anti-IS mission spelled out by Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve has shifted slightly in recent weeks to what the coalition describes as a new phase of stabilization and preparing to confront any kind of insurgency from ISIS terrorist cells. Maj. Gen. Felix Gendey, the deputy commander for strategy and support for the US-led coalition told The Jerusalem Post on December 1st that in Raqqa, power was being handed over to a “civilian internal security force and there is an intention to hand over to an internal security force once the other areas have been liberated.” These local forces, who the coalition does not name, “will need some development to manage the residual threat from ISIS.”

Because of the transition to a stabilization phase, the US is beginning to withdraw some of its heavy weapons such as the US Marines and their M777 howitzers. The question is what happens when this drawdown of weapons is eventually seized upon by those who oppose the US presence in eastern Syria and oppose the US partnership with the SDF to demand concessions? The Turkish news site Anadolu on December 1 continued to claim that “the PKK/PYD” were receiving weapons “given to them by the United States Central Command for fighting Daesh in Syria.” This is obvious pressure on the coalition to clarify arms shipments to eastern Syria.

It comes in the context of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s claim in late November that US President Donald Trump had stated the US would stop sending weapons to the YPG. The US is always careful to avoid mentioning the YPG or PYD and shift focus to the SDF which the coalition describes as “multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen” and others. The coalition public affairs office also says that “any divestiture of equipment to Kurdish elements of the SDF is shared with Turkey.”

The White House also stressed the “pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria,” during Trump’s phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What are “pending adjustments”? It appears to be part of the “stabilization” phase which involves training of local security forces and police. Basically, it means the war phase in eastern Syria is over, and the peace phase has begun. The readout of Trump’s call indicates that language as well. “The importance of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254” and the “Geneva Process” to resolve the Syrian conflict. Yet the Syrian government has described US statements by Mattis about not “walking away” as just an excuse to remain in eastern Syria. What happens when Syrian demands are backed by Russia or Turkey? Russia hosted the President of Turkey and Iran in Sochi in November. Russia also invited the PYD to take part in peace discussions in late October. When Ankara rejected the inclusion of the PYD, it became unclear if they would be included.

This leaves the Kurds and the rest of the SDF partners in eastern Syria at an impasse. US policy uses carefully chosen language to resist showing political support for its partners. It discusses security only but does not back including its partners in Geneva or other peace discussions.

Unlike the clear support the Syrian regime enjoys from Iran and Russia and the support Syrian rebels in northern Syria have received from Turkey, the US equivocates. This is partly because the Trump administration has supported a smaller footprint in the Middle East and because it has followed in the path of the policy it inherited from Barack Obama, including officials such as Bret McGurk, the special envoy for the war on IS. Trump tweeted on November 24 about “bringing peace to the mess that I inherited.”  Describing what could be seen as a phenomenal and successful partnership between the US and the SDF as a “mess” does not bode well for a long-term US commitment to eastern Syria. On the other hand, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said there is no future for the Assad family in the future of Syria.

As long as IS can be said to pose a threat in eastern Syria the US will stay and continue its policy of “by, with and through” its SDF partner. This is primarily a military-security alliance, not one built on political will at the US State Department or the White House. The US has had ample time to sketch out more political support and has baulked when pressured. Given the issues Trump faces in Washington and the US State Department’s reluctance to support anything but the status quo, the only policy the US has in eastern Syria is fighting IS or “extremism.” If IS is declared defeated the US will have a difficult time explaining its policy without putting forth a new policy and new language to underpin it. This will include discussions with Riyadh and Ankara, both of which have interests in eastern Syria and the conflict and both of which are long-time allies.