This ambivalence, while understandable, has produced the worst of all worlds: Assad remains in power; Iran and Russia are emboldened; extremism has flourished; half a million Syrians have been killed; twelve million Syrians have fled their homes; and there is no end in sight.
While the United States has led the fight against ISIS, in the broader Syrian context it has been a secondary player reacting to adversaries who ignored the mantra that “there is no military solution in Syria.” As the fight against the Islamic State reaches its denouement, the Assad regime’s ongoing siege and massacre of over 20,000 civilians in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib are a reminder that the broader strategic context continues to loom.
Empirical research suggests most civil wars are concluded by military victories, not political settlements.
Yet in the war between the murderous regime of Bashar Assad—backed by Russia and Iran—and fractured Islamist rebels, the United States does not want either side to prevail.
It is critical, however, that victory not be declared prematurely, and that lands recaptured from ISIS are protected, secured, and replaced with decent governance.
As Steve Coll illustrates in his important book Directorate S, the US government’s failure to secure the post-Taliban peace in Afghanistan—due in part to highly corrupt and incompetent Afghan governance—provided fertile ground for the Taliban’s reemergence.
The military defeat of ISIS would not have been possible without the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party or PYD—despite its moniker, an authoritarian party with a narrow base--and the Arab groups that coalesced around it.
US policy toward Syria has been debilitated by an irresolvable conundrum.
Washington should recognize the limits of the PYD’s appeal and encourage it to allow greater political participation by other Kurdish parties and Arab factions in the governance of their territory.
Importantly, the US should clarify to the PYD that its financial and material support is contingent on not cooperating with the Assad regime beyond movement of goods and people, distancing itself with militant Kurdish parties in Turkey (such as the PKK), and on reaching US-mediated security arrangements with Ankara. Aside from the troubling authoritarianism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey regularly attacks America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, flirts with Russia, and threatens the EU over refugee flows.
It is increasingly hard to tell that Turkey is a U. From Ankara’s perspective, it has paid the price for Washington’s strategic incoherence on Syria, including over 2.5 million Syrian refugees (the highest number in the world) and numerous jihadist attacks, including at the Istanbul airport.
However problematic Turkey’s internal and external behavior, however, it is better managed as a NATO member than as an aggrieved power untethered from Western (and democratic) institutions.