The Pentagon’s decision to arm a mostly Syrian Kurdish force has paid big dividends in northern Syria, where the Islamic State has been on the run in recent months. Backed by U.S. air power, Kurdish-led offensives have captured important pieces of the radical group’s “caliphate,” including the town of Manbij this month.
Then Turkish tanks and warplanes entered Syria last week and began targeting the Kurds, their long-standing enemy. But what happened next blindsided Kurdish leaders: Their American allies sided with the Turks — and ordered the Kurdish forces to hand over hard-won territory.
As we attempt to lead from behind on the Syria problem where the body count is perhaps 400,000+ and counting, lets review the basic problem.
One, getting the Kurds to fight for more than their own territorial goals in order to defeat ISIL was always going to be a hard sell. Now we showed the limits of our alliance with the Kurds, so that kind of enthusiastic help is less likely.
So at best we may weaken ISIL in Syria to the benefit of Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
Two, Turkey has always been anti-Assad and anti-Kurd. We've restrained Turkey's effort against Assad, it seems, in our effort to retain Assad as a negotiating "partner" to build on the glorious success of the chemical weapons deal to achieve a peace deal in Syria to be the crowning glory of Smart Diplomacy.
But without a path to end the war by defeating Assad, Turkey found that it now needs to stem the tide of the growing Kurdish strength in Syria that Turkey fears will create blowback inside Turkey.
As Turkey reaches out to Russia, we find that we must choose to side with the Turks to keep our NATO ally onboard our military plans.
In general, the problems we see with the Turks and Kurds applies to other allies operating in Syria (or anywhere), and reflect the problem with "leading from behind" as I noted some time ago:
Welcome to the flip side of "leading from behind."
When we want allies who can fight without us taking the lead--wait for it--we get allies who can fight without us in the lead.
So they might fight in Vietnam. Or invade Egypt.
If we're unwilling to have allies capable of fighting in their own interests, and we're unwilling to pay for our own defense capabilities that could convince our allies that they only need military capacity that complements our capabilities, what's left?
Will we wish for our foes and enemies to simply stop being threats? Or just pretend they aren't threats?
God help me, but I think I just wrote the 2016 Democratic presidential foreign policy. [emphasis added]
If we aren't going to do heavy lifting in Syria while expecting allies to provide the contents for body bags, those allies are likely to conclude that they will fight for their own interests rather than ours.
I know. The ingrates.
For all the complaints about the price of leading military alliances, the upside of taking the lead is that allies are more willing to bend more to our objectives as long as America is leading the charge and as long as our allies can live with what we want.
To be fair, I have no idea what we want in Syria other than focusing on ISIL as an excuse not to define our objectives for Syria.
UPDATE: Just what are we doing in the war against ISIL other than stringing it out to let President Obama avoid losing the war on his watch and hand it off to the next president? Because it just doesn't make much sense. As the article reminds us, our military initially intended to have the Iraqi offensive against Mosul kick off in April 2015.
And related to my point about our allies going their own way:
The U.S. has big goals for a small-scale war. Washington sees its mission as destroying ISIS, helping negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war, and keeping the lid on the historic rivalry between Islam’s Sunni and Shiite branches. Iran and Russia back Syria’s Assad. Saudi Arabia and Turkey want him gone. But Turkey is a problematic NATO ally that views Kurdish separatists, a key U.S. ally in the ISIS fight, as a bigger threat than ISIS. The U.S. is backing four major rebel groups with air strikes: the Iraqi army, moderate Syrian rebels, and separate Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. But crushing ISIS helps Assad, fueling the civil war, and bolstering Kurdish fighters angers Turkey, which believes some are allied with a Turkish Kurdish group responsible for terror attacks inside that country.
My outline for the war wasn't so grand in scope. I wanted to focus on liberating Iraq in 2015 while bolstering non-ISIL rebels in Syria; going after ISIL in Syria in 2016, giving room for the non-ISIL rebels we support to supplant the jihadis in the fight against Assad; and finishing off Assad in 2017 by aggressively supporting rebels that would by then be dominated by non-jihadi rebels attracted by our level of support while also seeing the jihadis we oppose destroyed.
I remain perplexed that it will likely take us longer to take away ISIL's Syria-Iraq caliphate from a puny army than it took to build a military virtually from scratch capable of entering Europe and then driving into the heart of Nazi Germany to break their war machine in the west.
UPDATE: More on this issue (when it rains it pours):
America’s war planners once again find themselves in a situation that shows how tricky just-in-time policymaking can be when relying on local forces who have their own interests to pursue, not just Washington’s.
Leading from behind is a wonderful theory that only requires us to get allies to bleed and die for our objectives rather than the objectives our allies want.
UPDATE: You don't get this when you lead from the front and try to win rather than avoid a defeat until you run out the clock to pass the war to the next president:
The events are consistent with the pattern that seems to govern the involvement of most powers active in Syria. Each party is fighting its own war: It's Syria à la carte. The Turks are interested in battling the Kurds. The Americans are only interested in defeating Islamic State. The Kurds are seeking to establish their own state. And the Russians are primarily intent on demonstrating to the world that they are once again a global power.
And toss in Gulf Arab states or groups who want to either defeat Assad and defeat Iran or who quietly support jihadis against Shias; Jordan which wants to keep jihadis away from their own territory; Israel which is content not to intervene as long as Syria and Hezbollah are too busy to bother Israel; and Iran which wants a client state in Syria that provides access to fight Israel via Lebanon's Iran-created Hezbollah state-within-a-state.
How do you lead from behind that?