America’s ‘Train Wreck’ Policy in Syria

America’s ‘Train Wreck’ Policy in Syria

Megan Gisclon
U.S. Senator John McCain made headlines last week after claiming during a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting that the United States will see a “train wreck” between Turks and Kurds in northern Syria if it does not recognize the threat that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)/ People’s Protection Units (YPG) raises against its NATO ally. In that same meeting, U.S. Central Command head General Joseph Votel responded by claiming the Syrian Kurds are a “vital partner” against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and promised the U.S. is trying to “work through this tension through dialogue.” It was thus no surprise that further attention was drawn to U.S. domestic discord over Syria with The Washington Post’s headline on March 9, “U.S. Split Over Plan to Take Raqqa From Islamic State.” 

Opinion on the PYD/YPG has been divided between U.S. institutions dating back to the Obama administration, and it is apparent that the conflict between these institutions has yet to be resolved. 

Amid this chaos and uncertainty, it is appropriate to see not only the future of northern Syria as a possible “train wreck” but also U.S. foreign policy in the region in this light. Despite a strict order to the Pentagon to quickly develop anti-ISIL strategy with his first six weeks in office, Donald Trump’s opinion on the matter at hand is still missing from the larger conversation in Washington. Indeed, there are bigger fish to fry within U.S. politics, namely the repeal of Obamacare, the controversy surrounding Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Trump’s ongoing war with the American media. And there are more newsworthy topics for Trump to tweet about at 3 a.m. than countering ISIL. 

In a wise and rather reassuring move, Trump has effectively turned over the problem of ISIL and other military endeavors to his generals and strategic institutions. It may be difficult for Turkey to cast its gaze from the White House, but it is actors like McCain and Votel, as well as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, that will now be guiding these policy areas—hopefully divorced from the Trump ideologues spouting “radical Islamic terrorism.”

With major battles ahead of them, it is immediately imperative that the U.S. and Turkey develop strategies in how to avoid collisions in northern Syria. The easiest strategy for the U.S. to take on would be to wait and see until the April 16 referendum. Given the most recent reports on the issue, this seems to be the policy that the U.S. will adopt. This is a prudent strategy for the U.S. as the referendum will mark a turning point in the establishment of the Turkish political order. However, this shows a setback for Trump, who promised the quick elimination of ISIL—some hoped within his first 100 days in office.

Perhaps the second easiest strategy for the U.S. to adopt would be to entirely exclude Turkey and bond with the PYD, seeing the Kurds as the fastest path to destroying ISIL without putting more U.S. boots on the ground or exerting diplomatic pressure. It is easy for the U.S. to keep adapting an old policy on the issue, especially when the priority of the American people is to have allies fight their own battles. Few in America are asking who these allies will be, much less who their enemies are (aside from ISIL).

Seemingly, the most difficult path for the U.S. to enter would be to balance both Turkey and the Syrian Kurds by brokering peace negotiations of sorts, though such a policy would require careful diplomacy that is perhaps beyond the ability or the will of the Trump policy in the region. Given the PYD/YPG’s recent return of territory to the Syrian government in a Russian-brokered process, the U.S. may opt to give Russia charge over future peace and wipe its hands clean of the region - a wish the Obama administration longed for. If the negotiation-centric Obama administration was not able to pull off such a feat, however, the Trump administration will unlikely do so. 

Over 50-some days into the Trump presidency, it is unclear whether Turkey overestimated the power and influence of the new White House, or if perhaps those within the Turkish-U.S. policymaking community from team Trump overpromised a commitment to “Turkey second” behind “America first.” 

*Megan Gisclon is the managing editor of Istanbul Policy Center.