By shifting its policy in Syria, the Biden administration could ease the US’ regional burden, allowing it to turn its attention to China.
In the early years of the war in Syria, Hilary Clinton positioned herself as a strong supporter of the legitimate Syrian opposition against the Bashar al Assad regime. At that time many speculated about the probability of a US intervention, but the Obama administration’s decision not to enforce its “red line” on chemical weapons shocked Washington pundits.
This was a demonstration of American unwillingness that ultimately facilitated the Russian intervention in Syria and became a symbol of the US’ failure there.
However, an equally important failure — one that has cast it to the sidelines of the political process and the future of the country — is not only ignored, but whitewashed. This was the insistence of the Obama administration to only support anti-Daesh groups that neither targeted the Assad regime nor the Iranian-backed Shia militias.
In Syria, the only group that fit this description was the Syrian branch of the US-designated PKK terror group, the YPG. To preserve the nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration not only alienated Turkey and misguided the international community, but also drove the US into a corner.
In line with this strategy, CENTCOM officials who worked closely with Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq against Daesh, have repeatedly undermined alternatives. The train and equip programmes for the legitimate armed Syrian opposition were defamed as ineffective or unviable. Yet years later, the same armed units of the Syrian Interim Government now control vast territories and cleared several areas from the YPG.
The US now has entered a state of negligible importance in Syria. After former President Trumps’ partial withdrawal decision, CENTCOM officials preferred seeing Russian, rather than Turkish boots in their former bases. Now the US local partner in Syria depends on Russia for its safety. US troops remained in a strip of land in the east to ‘protect the oil’, but the last reason for the US to stay in Syria vanished when the Biden administration decided to end the waiver for the American company operating the oil facilities.
Since then, CENTCOM officials are increasingly emphasising the importance of their work in Syria against Daesh. Even though Daesh hasn’t controlled territory since 2019, American commanders regularly publish information about YPG’s counter-terror operations in Syria. In reality, these “counter-terror operations” by the YPG are about as effective as the operations of the Afghan National Army against the Taliban. The narrative over Syria is misguided, just as the narrative over Afghanistan was.
Moreover, in contrast to the Afghan National Army, the YPG does not have a motivation to eliminate Daesh – their sole source of alleged legitimacy. The YPG wants to fight Daesh, but not eliminate it. While US statements suggest that everything is fine in Syria, the reality is otherwise. Daesh continues to operate in the country.
The small zone of American influence, its reliance on Russia for protecting its local partner in Syria and the lack of reasons to stay in Syria are just one facet of the looming disaster. More important is that the US has sidelined itself from the political process of Syria.
According to the UN, the political process in Syria has two sides: the Assad regime and the legitimate Syrian opposition. The US, however, works with a third party that follows a separatist agenda for just a part of Syria. The US has played no role in the decision-making process for the members of the constitutional committee and has lost its influence over the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian High Negotiations Committee, consisting of all the political spectrums of the Syrian opposition, works closely with Turkey, and Turkey has evolved to become the sole guarantor of the Syrian opposition. American diplomacy remains on the sidelines with sanctions and blockades against some Arab countries normalising relations with the Assad regime.
The US started by supporting the Syrian opposition and democracy. Now it contributes to a separatist agenda in Syria that will ultimately end with the US playing no role in the future of Syria if the US doesn't change policy.
At the end of the day, the tactical decision by the Obama administration to partner with the YPG needs to be corrected. Biden has to re-evaluate the tactics of the former president he served under and make a smart decision.
It’s not in the interest of the US to stay in Syria supporting a separatist agenda. The interest of the US is in supporting a political solution by strengthening the legitimate Syrian opposition.
To do so, Biden needs to abandon the YPG and work on uniting the non-YPG elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces with the Syrian National Army and the Kurdish Roj Peshmerga under the command of the Syrian Interim Government. By bringing these elements together, the US would become the kingmaker in Syria and could facilitate a political solution for Syria.
The proposed idea to unite these forces is founded on an already occurring phenomenon as a de facto regional alliance of Turks, Arabs and Kurds is forming against the PKK/YPG. The US only needs to surf this wave and bring non-YPG elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces and formalise the alliance. This would allow Washington to come out of the sidelines into the centre of the game without alienating the Kurds.
Such a policy shift in Washington would be appreciated by Turkey, which would provide strong support to enable a smooth transition. Moreover, as a bonus of this decision, the US would eliminate the strongest spoiler in Turkish-American relations. The Biden administration would strengthen its relations with a valuable and important NATO and regional partner, easing the burden on the US and helping Biden to focus more on China.
Finally, this shift in strategy would be a strong alternative to the other proposed idea of normalising the Assad regime that has used chemical weapons on the people and committed numerous war crimes and atrocities.
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