THE U.S. SHOULD SUPPORT THE SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES, NOT REHABILITATE ASSAD
The Biden administration overcame diplomatic, bureaucratic, and logistical hurdles to rally a coalition of 50-plus countries in support of Ukraine since February 2022. Washington's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine is American foreign policy at its finest. While the Syrian civil war is a far more complicated conflict, the Biden administration's Syria policy has been inconsistent at best and impotent at worst. To do better, the U.S. should double down on supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) instead of acquiescing to Bashar al-Assad's rehabilitation.
The dictator of Damascus is a president without a country. Russia, Iran, and their respective proxies have enabled the Assad regime to kill a minimum of 230, 224 civilians (including 30,007 children and 553 journalists), displace up to 14 million Syrians, drop no fewer than 81, 916 barrel bombs, conduct at least 217 chemical weapons attacks, and destroy up to 50 percent of all critical infrastructure in Syria since 2011. To add insult to injury, Moscow also paralyzed the United Nations by vetoing 17 Security Council resolutions related to Syria.
After nearly 12 years of isolation for crimes committed against the Syrian people, the Arab League recently adopted a decision to re-admit Syria and normalize relations with the Assad regime. In addition to countering Syria's Captagon trafficking, they cite weakening Tehran's influence in Damascus and securing the return of Syrian refugees. The pursuit of these goals is likely to lead nowhere. While Iran's influence in Syria is institutionalized, most Syrian refugees have no intention of returning to Syria if Assad remains in power. Despite having better options than acquiescence, the U.S. has quietly encouraged Assad's rehabilitation.
Washington's most loyal ally in Syria is the SDF. Their shared interests include eradicating ISIS, making the Middle East safe for democracy, promoting the empowerment of women, and maintaining access to oil and gas fields. The SDF is far from perfect, but it's fighting to build a multi-ethnic, secular, and democratic society in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Washington has a pivotal role to play in ensuring the SDF's democratic experiment in the AANES survives and succeeds.
The AANES faces an endless list of obstacles, but its main challenge is Turkey. Despite the disapproval of its allies, Ankara has extended its protracted conflict against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraq to include the SDF in Syria. Washington brokered a ceasefire between Turkey and the SDF in 2019. Ankara violated the truce more than 800 times in 2020 alone. Last month, Turkey attempted to assassinate SDF General Mazloum Abdi—along with three American servicemen—in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. While the Turkish drone strike failed, it's not the first time NATO"ally" Turkey has attacked American soldiers and it is unlikely to be the last.
Turkey's belligerence puts the lives of American soldiers at risk and compromises the SDF-led fight to eradicate ISIS. This weakens the 85-member Global Coalition's counter-terrorism operations inside Syria by reducing the SDF's ability to guard the 10, 000-plus battle-hardened ISIS militants languishing in 26 makeshift prisons. The SDF lacks the resources and the firepower to do everything, everywhere, all at once. So, when Turkey attacks and SDF soldiers abandon their posts to engage the aggressor, ISIS detainees escape from captivity.
A wise man once said, "You don't make peace with friends; you can only make peace with your enemies." If Washington can't broker a peace treaty between its most important Syrian partner and NATO "ally" Turkey, then it should lay the foundation to complement CENTCOM's military presence in Syria with a permanent diplomatic mission to the AANES. This wouldn't be the first time the U.S. established diplomatic relations with an autonomous region in a conflict. Washington's Diplomatic Mission to Kosovo began as an information service (1996) and a diplomatic office (1999-2008) before becoming an embassy (2012).
Resolving the conflict between Washington's most important ally in Syria and NATO "ally" Turkey is a must. Trapped in a corner, the SDF may be left with no choice but to cooperate with the dictators of Damascus and Moscow against Ankara. This would imperil the SDF's democratic goals in the AANES, and further rehabilitate one of the worst war criminals of the 21st century. Both outcomes would be disastrous for U.S. interests in Syria and the Middle East.
To be clear: Washington has responded effectively to crises before. It is responding decisively to other conflicts around the globe today, and it has the knowledge, experience, and resources to do the same in Syria now.
Originally published by Newsweek on May 9, 2023.