“De Opresso Liber” (to liberate the oppressed): the motto of American special forces, ought to have a special resonance as over 500 US special force operators deploy in northern Syria.
Unfortunately, misguided policy first put into motion by the Obama administration may be setting up those warfighters for failure at best, and at worst setting the stage for a broader regional conflict. As the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Dumfort meets with his Turkish and Russian counterparts in Antalya to “deconflict” their respective policies and military activity in Syria — sometimes intersecting, often conflicting — the northern Syrian city of Manbij has become the latest flash point between Washington, Ankara, and Moscow.
In Manbij, the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” fought a bloody battle with Daesh. Taking the city would not have been possible without significant US military aid, a stream of close air support, and active frontline direction by forward deployed US special forces operators.
What many in the Western media and punditry overlook is the history of Manbij prior to its capture by Daesh. A scene of civil demonstrations that called for the overthrow of the Assad regime, Manbij was once ruled by a local council. A brief battle was fought between Daesh and the Free Syrian Army for control of the city in 2013. Outgunned, with no outside support, and facing renewed Assad regime assaults on its flank, the FSA forces eventually withdrew.
Manbij is strategically located near the Euphrates river valley and a critical intersection for connecting lines of supply and communication from rural Aleppo into Raqqa province. SDF officials reassured the US that once liberated, Manbij would be ruled by a civilian council that would represent the Arab inhabitants as well as the Kurds of the city. That pledge was promptly broken as the PYD has actively quelled any attempts by Arab or Kurdish officials in northern Syria from challenging their monopoly.
In Manbij, optics matter. The US military has one simple binary objective to achieve in Syria: defeating Daesh. Anything else is considered peripheral and a distraction from the mission at hand. This myopic approach is a recipe for future disaster. US forces in Manbij watched silently as the Assad regime provided weapons to the SDF in Manbij.
Moreover, the US could have flexed its muscle and active air presence over the airspace in Aleppo to force an area denial for Russian bombers supporting the Assad regime offensive in Aleppo targeting Syrian civilians. The message this projects to the Sunni Arab populace is that the US is colluding with the PYD, Russia, and Iran.
This perception not only ultimately undermines the fight against Daesh in the long term, but also significantly harms US security interests. For instance, the SDF allowing the Iranians and the Assad regime use of an air base outside of the city of Qamishli advances Iran’s objectives in Syria-- which in no way are benign.
While US Central Command relishes in publishing pictures on social media of female PYD fighters on the frontline, policymakers and military planners may be missing a deeper — and more sinister — side of these so-called “partnered forces”.
American foreign fighter “volunteers” who enlisted with the PKK’s Syrian wing have described the animosity that PKK fighters hold against the US. Despite the seemingly friendly relationship between the Pentagon’s forces and PKK leaders like Polat Can, rank and file PKK fighters believe that the fight against Daesh is not an end in itself, but the first step in a continuum of a struggle for independence, and more than likely the prelude to the ultimate battle: fighting the Turks.
In a comically absurd moment last week, a senior New York Times reporter embedded with U.S. forces in the Manbij area asked an American military officer whether he believes that the PYD have broader aims outside of fighting Daesh. The officer painted a rosy picture and took pains to dissociate the PYD from PKK militants. A short while later, one of the SDF field commanders completely contradicted his erstwhile American ally and told the reporter “The Turks are our main enemy.”
U.S. military commanders believe that ultimately they can influence the SDF's behaviour and temper their territorial ambitions in Syria. This mindset has become accepted doctrine amongst the upper echelons in the Pentagon. It is also likely to prove an incredibly massive miscalculation and a woeful misunderstanding of the long term goals of the PYD.
Hopefully someone in CENTCOM Tampa HQ or forward operating base in Doha can look past the staged photo-ops and see the PKK for who they truly are — and for the threat to regional security posed by the PKK’s ultimate aims to align with the Iranian and Assad regimes.