US Syria goals built upon shaky foundations and uncertain alliances

American troops look out toward the border with Turkey from a small outpost near the town of Manbij, northern Syria

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out the Trump administration’s vision for Syria, making clear that, contrary to the expectations of many, the United States will stay in Syria beyond the collapse of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) self-proclaimed caliphate, holding the jihadists at bay and establishing an order compatible with US interests.
Crucially, Tillerson — in a sharp break with US President Donald Trump’s predecessor — specified that countering Iranian influence within Syria was a central US objective. The problem with the strategy is that it seems to rely on repurposing the United States’ anti-ISIS Kurdish militia allies against the Iranian revolution.
The key portions of Tillerson’s statement said the United States “desires five key end states” in Syria: an “enduring defeat” to ISIS and al-Qaeda; a political resolution to underlying armed struggle between Bashar Assad’s regime and the population that rose against him, which sees the dictator depart; curtailing Iran’s influence and making sure “Syria’s neighbours are secure from all threats emanating from Syria;” allowing the return of refugees; and the removal of all weapons of mass destruction from Syria.
To avoid large-scale deployments and in a futile attempt to run a counterterrorism war, while avoiding entanglement in Syria’s underlying conflict, the United States has worked “by, with and through” the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This is a diplomatic construct designed to circumvent the political and legal problems of working with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organisation classified as terrorists by Turkey and the United States. Though there are many Arab and other units within the SDF, few deny that the PKK controls the group, politically, militarily and strategically.
A mandate over Rojava, as the PKK calls the region it occupies in northern Syria, might allow the United States to keep ISIS at a manageable level, at least as long as the United States stays. It is not clear, however, that a jointly held Kurdish-US mandate in eastern Rojava would do much to resolve questions over al-Qaeda’s former branch in the country’s west. Questions among the Arab population over the extent of the SDF/PKK’s legitimacy within Rojava might open space for jihadists to infiltrate within the east.
The United States’ doubling down on its alliance with the PKK exacerbates rifts within NATO, distracting the Turks, who are best placed to tackle Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and reinforcing Ankara’s view that the United States’ presence in Syria is contrary to its own interests. This incentivises Turkey to undermine the US mandate, risking anti-ISIS gains and, more seriously, keeping Turkey’s view of Syria aligned with those of the Russia-Iran axis.
Elsewhere, there is little prospect of refugees returning. More Syrian refugees fled Assad than any other actor within the Syrian conflict. Even if their homes haven’t been colonised by Iran’s militias, they cannot return while Assad remains in power. Both Idlib, dominated by HTS, and the authoritarian regime of the PKK offer limited appeal to the displaced. Some refugees have returned to the Turkish-controlled areas of Syria and perhaps more will in the future.
Assad has used weapons of mass destruction at least once while US forces were in Syria. The April 2017 cruise missile strikes by the United States seem to have prevented a repeat but Assad still has weapons stockpiles and production infrastructure. It is not obvious how they can be dismantled from a remote protectorate.
The other US objectives — guarding against threats to Syria’s neighbours and the goals of “reducing… malicious Iranian influence from Syria” and getting rid of Assad — are the most troubled. They are unlikely to be feasible if the intention is to use the PKK to achieve them. The PKK has used Syria as a logistics base to attack Turkish cities and SDF-flagged fighters have shown up inside Syria in the ranks of the PKK. There is significant reason to doubt the PKK’s resolve in a confrontation with pro-Assad forces.
The PKK’s connections to Assad, Iran and Russia are old and extensive. From the outset of the war, the PKK has been aligned with the pro-Assad coalition and past confrontations only seem to have drawn them closer. In Manbij, the PKK ceded US-won territory to Assad and Iran to hold off Turkey. In Afrin, the PKK called on the regime to come to its defence against the Turkish onslaught.
Significant parts of the Arab component within the SDF are pulled from pro-Assad formations that will not fight either Assad or Iran. The Rojava statelet is entirely reliant upon the Assad regime’s toleration of its existence and Iran’s financing of its public services.
US intelligence is aware of the PKK’s coordination with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the regime holds the key security nodes, including airports, throughout Rojava. Even in areas newly captured by the PKK, the Assad regime’s secret police are back, able to carry off activists and rebels to dungeons in Damascus in exchange for paying the government salaries for the PKK.
The US air strikes February 7 against pro-regime forces in defence of the SDF-PKK provide a model of what might be to come. If US resolve holds and the PKK-held areas are guaranteed through force, it could freeze Iran’s influence and perhaps reverse it within the areas currently held. Eradicating Iran’s footprint within Rojava would take considerable effort and the notion of the PKK using Rojava as a base to attack the Iranian security architecture in western Syria is unrealistic.
This leaves Tehran triumphant in “useful Syria” and in possession of the initiative, able to harass the US zone in pursuit of its overarching strategic goal of reconsolidating all of Syria under Assad and his various militias and driving the United States out of the region.
Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter @KyleWOrton.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.