An incoherent American strategy is allowing Putin’s Russia to drive wedges into American alliances and disrupt what little strategy the U.S. has left in Syria. The latest example: Russia’s clever move to back the Syrian Kurds—key allies in what passes for America’s anti-ISIS strategy—against the Turks, America’s NATO allies and the keystone of any serious policy to restore order to Syria without the use of American troops.
As the Turks pound the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian Kurds turn to Russia for help, the last fig leaf drops away from the pretense that the United States has a strategy against ISIS. If President Obama sits back as the Russians humiliate the Turks and perhaps drive them into a greater intervention against the Kurds in Syria, he will watch as Putin shreds what is left of the U.S.-Turkish alliance that has been a bedrock of stability in the region since the Truman Administration.
The root of the problem is, as always in Syria, the inability of the Obama White House to define a realistic objective, and then to set about assembling the means to achieve it. An alarmed and enraged public opinion in the U.S. and Europe forced a reluctant White House to “do something” about ISIS. Given that the White House wanted to do this if possible without U.S. troops, that meant relying on local allies was the only way forward. The most obvious and potentially effective local allies would have been non-ISIS Sunnis, including the Turks, but their price for real cooperation against ISIS is and remains an effective U.S. commitment to deal with Assad. The Obama team has responded with a series of brave sounding but vacuous phrases about Assad needing to go, but any serious anti-Assad policy has been off the table. This is partly, it appears, because the White House simply didn’t want to add to its “to do” list in what is already an ugly and dicey situation, and partly because it fears being drawn into a conflict with Assad’s backers and enablers in Iran. The cornerstone of what the White House wants to think of as its Middle East policy is a move toward a rapprochement with Iran; it could hardly launch a proxy war against Tehran even as it lifted sanctions, giving Iran tens of billions of extra dollars to kill the very proxies it was sending into battle.
So Obama has been unwilling to pay the basic price the Sunni Arabs want. With effective cooperation with Sunni Arabs impossible, Obama was left with the Shia forces aligned with Iran in Iraq, and in Syria he has the Kurds, a group who in self-defense is willing to fight ISIS. They’ve done pretty well, but the Syrian Kurds aren’t content to be sacrificial pawns in order to let the Obama White House look good. They intend, and have always intended, to use this opportunity to create an autonomous homeland for themselves like their cousins have carved out in Iraq. There is no way they aren’t going to look at the situation this way; as the Syrian Kurds see things, this is literally a matter of life and death—given what Assad would do to them if he succeeds in regaining control.
But an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria is a deadly threat to Turkey’s own peace and stability. The Kurds in Syria are close—both geographically and politically—to the Kurds in Turkey, and there is no way to keep weapons and fighters on the Syrian side of the border. Moreover, given the geography in Syria, there is no way that a Syrian Kurdish region won’t involve Kurds pushing back against Sunni Arabs in areas of mixed population. (Though there are currently many such areas, there will be fewer as the war grinds on, and occasional episodes of mass murder and ethnic cleansing on both sides sort the region’s peoples into more homogenous units.) That’s not just a problem for Turks; it’s a problem for what’s left of the anti-Assad, anti-ISIS Sunni Arab forces in northern Syria, and their backers and paymasters in Ankara and the Gulf.
Given all that, Putin doesn’t have to be a strategic genius to understand that simply by giving the Kurds some backing he can disrupt American alliances and inflect yet another of the serial humiliations that have marked his interactions with a dazed and confused White House ever since the war in Ukraine began. Worse—or, from the Kremlin’s point of view, better—Putin can reduce what’s left of America’s Syria policy into utter incoherence and strategic collapse. (Signs of Putin’s emerging strategy were evident as early as October, when a group of Syrian Kurds visited Moscow and announced plans to open a permanent mission there in order to foster cooperation with the Kremlin. The mission officially opened last week.)
With refugees destabilizing the European Union, the Turks writing off the value of NATO, the Kurds considering a shift to Russia rather than the U.S., ISIS quietly rejoicing as its enemies turn against one another, the Sunni Gulf powers taking more risks and increasing their distance from the U.S., the situation in the Middle East is growing more dire and more dangerous by the week.
Obama may not yet realize it, but if events continue on their current trajectory in Syria and the wider Middle East, the foreign policy concepts he holds most dear are likely to be discredited for decades to come as the consequences of strategic incoherence grow and the costs of failure mount. The President’s lack of strategic clarity and paralysis in the face of unpleasant choices has exposed him to extraordinary humiliation. Allies and enemies alike now consider him inconsequential. Putin and others see the opportunity not only to bully Obama and make him look even weaker; they believe that the remaining months of his term offer a golden opportunity to further weaken the strategic underpinnings of American power.
Fortunately for President Obama’s short-term peace of mind, but tragically from the standpoint of Middle East peace, the plight of the Syrians and the President’s historical standing, the press is sticking to its standard “don’t connect the dots” approach when it comes to reporting on President Obama’s failures in office. That is, the mainstream, instinctively pro-Democratic media is reporting on the unfolding disaster in Syria as it must, but it isn’t doing to Obama’s Middle East failures what it did to George W. Bush’s. That is, while a growing number of well-respected reporters are becoming increasingly concerned by the evidence of strategic collapse, the press as a whole isn’t building up and relentlessly hammering home a picture of comprehensive strategic and policy failure and aggressively blaming the White House for the consequences of its fumbles. The White House isn’t facing the kind of national uproar a GOP president would face in a comparable situation of strategic meltdown, and so the President and the small clique of ultra-loyal aides who have gathered around him in the twilight of the second term can continue to shield themselves from the full awareness of the trouble they are in.
That is too bad. If the White House faced the firestorm of criticism that its Syria policy deserves, there would be a better chance for the kind of reappraisal and regrouping that America’s Middle East policy so desperately needs. During his last year in office, Jimmy Carter reversed course on the Soviet Union after the Afghanistan invasion revealed the false premises on which his global strategy had rested; this was a painful decision to make but it was good for the country and good for his legacy. President George W. Bush also changed direction in his second term. That does not, yet, seem to be in the cards for President Obama; as a result the country he leads, those who depend on American success and his own historical standing continue to take heavy damage.