US foreign policy decisions on the Syrian conflict have faltered since the beginning of the civil war. Deep divisions in the US policymaking circles show the US does not have an endgame in Syria.

Washington’s inconsistent moves in Syria have made regional players doubt about whether US will ever have a concrete Syria policy or not. US special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey (R), who was a former ambassador to Turkey, attends a meeting at the European headquarters of the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, on September 14, 2018.
Washington’s inconsistent moves in Syria have made regional players doubt about whether US will ever have a concrete Syria policy or not. US special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey (R), who was a former ambassador to Turkey, attends a meeting at the European headquarters of the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, on September 14, 2018. (Xu Jinquan / Reuters Archive)

Washington’s contradictory actions across Syria since the beginning of the civil war has made both Syrian opposition groups and regional powers including Turkey, a US ally, confused about the US political endgame. 

Much of Syria, except the north of the country, is again under the control of the Assad regime backed by Russia and Iran. In northern Syria, the US is allied with the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, despite consistent opposition from Ankara. 

The PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU, and Turkey, has launched a three-decades-old armed campaign against the Turkish state, costing tens of thousands of lives. 

“No strategic vision I can sense,” said Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasian Center, regarding the US endgame in the Syrian civil war. 

“In Washington, there is no clear agreement on how to contain both Russia and Iran in Syria and establishing a strategic partnership,” with Turkey to address the country’s civil war, Bryza told TRT World. 

Bryza recounted several US policy goals in Syria from destroying Deash to restraining influence of Iran and reducing overall violence in Syria. 

“But they have never been integrated into a strategy yet. Therefore, I don’t see how the US will necessarily achieve those goals.”

Most recently, in another contradictory move, Washington is dispatching joint patrols with Turkey in the YPG-controlled town of Manbij west of the Euphrates River, while it continues to support the YPG east of the Euphrates River. 

Turkish and US troops are pictured during a joint patrol around Manbij, in northern Syria on November 1, 2018.
Turkish and US troops are pictured during a joint patrol around Manbij, in northern Syria on November 1, 2018. (Credit: Turkish defense ministry / Reuters)

Experts like Bryza think that the existing contradictory US stances in Syria are a result of an unsustainable split in the US decision-making process.

“There is a deep split in the US military over Turkey versus YPG. The Central Command has responsibility for US military operations in the Middle East. It’s angry about Turkey, does not trust Turkey, and first works with YPG."

“The other part of the US military, the European command, which has responsibility for the military relationship with Turkey, thinks that US Central Command is working with YPG. They [European Command] pretty much want to work with Turkey,” Bryza observed. 

The US Syria policy split echoes across the US government from the White House to the Pentagon according to Bryza. 

US-Turkish cooperation in Syria

US indecision has also slowed the recent Manbij cooperation between Washington and Ankara, making experts and political operatives guess about the full scale of US-Turkey cooperation. 

Because of US ambiguity, Turkey along with Russia and Iran have proceeded with the Astana peace process in parallel to the UN-sponsored Geneva talks.

But Bryza is still hopeful that if the Manbij model brings a degree of success, then, US-Turkish cooperation could deepen and expand. 

He has also expressed his doubts about US President Donald Trump’s strategic vision and leadership across the turbulent Middle East which could effectively falter US-Turkey ties in Syria. 

“Resolving Turkish-US tension in northern Syria, the European Command should win. Their vision has to win. President Trump has to decide that to happen. I have no idea that he is paying enough attention [on that],” Bryza said. “He does not really focus on foreign policy.”

Bryza thinks that Trump is so busy with domestic politics, that he's ignoring the country’s foreign policy objectives. When it comes to the Middle East, his thinking is limited to Saudi Arabia and Iran, and he does not think about Turkey or Syria in a strategic way at all, Bryza said.

The US announcement of a bounty for three top PKK leaders leads Bryza to find a silver lining towards a possible US-Turkish reconciliation over the YPG presence in northern Syria.  

From left to right PKK leaders, Murat Karayilan, Cemil Bayik, and Duran Kalkan have been pictured.
From left to right PKK leaders, Murat Karayilan, Cemil Bayik, and Duran Kalkan have been pictured. (TRTWorld)

“People [pro-Turkish American policy-makers] who think its terrible to work with YPG are saying that at least we have to agree to something, the state department is saying to go after the PKK,” Bryza said. 

“I think the reward positioned for [Murat] Karayilan and the others reflects the overall US government policy which tries to have good relations and strategic partnership with Turkey.” 

“Containing” Russia: A long shot? 

Inconsistent US policy has not only pushed Turkey, which has supported the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, to partner with Russia and Iran, but also has allowed Moscow to fill a greater role across the entire Middle East. 

During the Cold War, the US aggressively pursued a containment policy against the Soviet Union, the predecessor state of Russia, and communism, which was the ideological base of the Soviets. 

Many experts and politicians have credited the US policy formulated in the 1950s mostly by George F. Kennan, a prominent US diplomat, bureaucrat and strategist, with the success of the US alliance against the communist world led by the Soviets. 

From Ukraine to Syria, Russia with its aggressive foreign policy and military assertiveness is giving all kinds of signs that it cannot be contained anymore. 

One of the main reasons for the Russian intervention in Syria “was to train our military forces and to show the new power of Russian military forces, thus to restore our ability to deter,” Sergei A Karaganov told TRT World in October.
One of the main reasons for the Russian intervention in Syria “was to train our military forces and to show the new power of Russian military forces, thus to restore our ability to deter,” Sergei A Karaganov told TRT World in October. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / AP Archive)

In an obvious example, despite the fact that the US is much stronger than Russia in economic and military terms, Washington cannot find a way to reduce Russian influence in Syria, Bryza conceded. 

While Bryza thinks most of the US weaknesses in Syria and the other parts of the Middle East are related to an absence of any vision on the part of the Trump administration, Sergey Karaganov, a prominent Russian strategist, thinks otherwise. 

“United States is losing its dominant position,” said Karaganov, who is leading Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Russian think-tank, during an extensive TRT World interview in early October. 

“It’s [our] revenge. They have to adapt to that [new reality].” 

Karaganov thinks Trump’s recent sanctions against Russia and his trade war against China are the other symptoms of US decadence in the world politics. 

Source: TRT World