How long will and can the US stay in Syria?
U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster was in Turkey on Feb. 11 to have a meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Foreign and Security Policy Adviser İbrahim Kalın in Istanbul, the first stop of his tour covering Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt and Lebanon.
The focus of McMaster’s talks with Turkish officials was the U.S. collaboration with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the east of Syria. Turkey and the U.S. consider the PKK a terrorist organization, but U.S. officials have said so far that their cooperation with the groups has been “a necessity, rather than a choice” despite Turkey offering to support its NATO ally.
The meeting took place amid Turkey’s military operation in northwestern Syria on the YPG-held Afrin district, near the Turkish border, which is continuing with intense clashes. On Feb. 10, a Turkish attack helicopter crashed near Afrin, most probably due to a guided missile, leading to a total of 11 Turkish soldiers being killed by militants. Turkey accuses the U.S. of providing sophisticated weaponry to YPG militants which they could use against Turkish targets.
The issue is likely to be discussed in a meeting between Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli and U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis during NATO meetings on Feb. 14-15 in Brussels and in a meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Tillerson’s speech in Stanford University on Jan. 17 outlining the U.S.’s Syria strategy as “keeping troops in northern Syria indefinitely to prevent the resurgence of the ISIL and counter the influence of Iran” has led to question marks about the length of the U.S. forces’ stay in Syria. Tillerson says the U.S. will not repeat the mistakes it made in Iraq by withdrawing earlier than needed. The U.S. invasion forces stayed in Iraq for more than eight years between 2003 and 2011.
But the U.S. forces, after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, were in Iraq and were officially hosted by the Iraqi government, like they were officially in Vietnam upon the request of then-South Vietnamese government. In Syria, the U.S. forces are not invited by the Bashar al-Assad regime, which is dependent on the backing of Russia and partly Iran, and because of its “No boots on the ground” policy, U.S. forces are collaborating with the YPG under the name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The U.S. presence in Syria, together with its proxy forces on the ground, depends on a de facto agreement with Russia - with the de facto acceptance by the Syrian regime and Iran - limited to the east of the Euphrates River, including a no-fly zone. One of the most serious problems Turkey has with the U.S. in Syria is the city of Manbij, located west of the Euphrates River, from which the U.S. promised to remove the YPG once the city was taken back from ISIL. The promise hasn’t been fulfilled yet.
Apart from being a typical American fantasy to stop Iranians, a 3,000-year-old native culture of the region, from posing threat to another culture in the region, the Israelis, by feeding the PKK, which is impossible to back without changing its name, Tillerson’s approach was strongly questioned in the U.S. Congress on Feb. 6 during a session of the House Foreign Relations Committee by a seasoned diplomat.
Robert Ford, who resigned as the U.S. ambassador to Damascus in 2014, asked Congress to decide whether it wants an indefinite presence in Syria and to instruct the Trump administration “to identify benchmarks and timelines for when political conditions in Syria are such that American forces can withdraw.”
Stressing that the U.S. has spent some $12 billion on its operation in Syria, excluding CIA activities, according to American expert Joshua Landis, Ford said: “That’s a lot of money and it’s not clear when those outlays will stop… Our military and civilian personnel on the ground in Syria will be targeted, eventually.”
It is also interesting to understand that the retired diplomat said the Trump administration should draw lessons not only from Iraq and Afghanistan but also from Vietnam, in reference to former Defense Minister Robert McNamara.
“McNamara urged great caution before we get involved long-term in foreign civil wars,” Ford said. “He stressed that we cannot fully understand the complexities of local civil wars, and some foreign policy problems have no real resolution. That certainly does apply to Syria. I don’t think anyone would suggest there is a more complicated conflict than what we see now in Syria,” he added.