By Greg Brew
Turkey, Russia, and Iran are taking active roles in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria to shape the eventual post-war settlement to their advantage. The US is increasing its involvement but has yet to indicate a coherent strategy beyond re-taking territory held by the Islamic State (ISIS). It has shown favor to Kurdish groups in Syria and support for Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the fight to retake Mosul, while working to minimize the role of Iran-backed Shiite militias, strengthen Iraqi independence, and decrease the influence exercised by Iran.
Turkey has intervened and seized territory in Syria to counter advances made by US-backed Kurdish groups. Russia and Iran back the Assad regime against all opposition groups, some of which remain affiliated with the West, the Arab kingdoms, or Turkey. Iran also wields considerable influence over the fight against ISIS in Iraq.
The US must be aware of Iranian, Turkish, and Russian ambitions to shape the situation in Iraq and Syria once the war against ISIS comes to an end. It must work to prevent wholesale annexations or divisions of Iraqi and Syrian territory, which would only exacerbate potential anti-Kurdish tensions and weaken the territorial integrity of the Syrian and Iraqi states. If this should happen, it would cause additional violence to spill over from Syria and Iraq into neighboring areas, creating room for post-ISIS extremist groups.
The US should work towards a settlement that preserves Kurdish autonomy in Iraq without leaving the door open to unification with the freed Kurdish cantons in eastern Syria. Such a policy is key to maintaining the territorial status quo and preventing further violence from breaking out once ISIS is defeated. The US must be prepared to work with Russia, Iran, and Turkey while pushing for a settlement that eliminates ISIS, protects civilian populations, preserves Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and prevents further conflict from breaking out.
The war against the Islamic State (ISIS) which has raged in Syria and Iraq since 2014 is reaching its denouement. The Iraqi army, with assistance from a coalition of groups ranging from Kurdish “Peshmerga,” Iran-backed Shiite militias, and US advisors, has driven ISIS from most of its former strongholds, while the ISIS capital of Mosul is slowly coming under coalition control. In Syria, while fighting between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, assisted by Iran and Russia, and various rebel groups continues, the fight against ISIS in the east of the country is pushing forward, with the capture of Raqqa and final victory slowly coming within view.
The US has increased its presence in both conflicts, deploying nearly one thousand troops in Syria and seven thousand in Iraq. Despite the frequent ambivalence surrounding American involvement in both Middle Eastern conflicts, Obama’s policy of slow escalation, which the Trump Administration has accelerated through increased deployments in eastern Syria, has made the US a key player in these wars.
The Trump admin's decision to launch missile strikes against the Assad regime on April 6, ostensibly as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons, has cast further ambiguity on the course of US policy. The US needs an endgame in Syria and Iraq, which it currently, and very clearly, lacks. In Syria, this conversation won’t start until the Syrian War ends. Recent missile strikes have cast doubt on earlier assertions that the US would allow Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, to emerge triumphant.
Nevertheless, there is an immediate and very real need for a US strategy in Syria and Iraq. US-backed Kurdish forces have retaken ISIS territory in Eastern Syria and are closing in on the ISIS capital in Syria, the city of Raqqa. In Iraq, it is likely that once Mosul is retaken, the fight over what comes next for the integrity of the Iraqi state will begin immediately.
The US must work to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq while also working to ensure the continued autonomy of the Kurdish autonomous region, without leaving the door open to full independence or a unification of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish groups, as this will only exacerbate tensions and provoke potential responses from Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Rather than retreat once ISIS is defeated, the US should actively engage in diplomacy with all involved actors and push for a diplomatic settlement in order to prevent a scramble for territory and a complete disintegration of existing Syrian and Iraqi territorial integrity. Such an event would only lead to further violence and potentially drag in Russia, Turkey, and Iran as well as local Kurdish groups throughout the region, increasing the possibility for violent spillovers into neighboring territory.
The war against ISIS, which began in the spring of 2014 when the group rushed into northern Iraq, has roped in nearly every state in the region, as well as the US and Russia. It has created new alliances between old adversaries, altering the politics of the region. It is also nearing its conclusion; the question of what will come next will dominate American foreign policy in the Middle East, should the Trump admin choose to engage seriously. Indications to date are mixed. For months, US rhetoric has focused on the fight against ISIS. However, the decision to launch missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad complicates the question of what strategy the US will pursue in Syria and Iraq as the Syrian Civil War rages on and the fight against ISIS reaches it denouement.
Iran is heavily involved in the Syrian War, using proxies such as Shiite militias and its own Quds force to bolster the Assad regime. In Iraq, Iran exercises outsized influence through its support for Shiite militias and is playing a role in the campaign to retake the city of Mosul, reportedly helping to set strategy for the Iraqi army.
Turkey has intervened in the Syrian war in order to prevent a full unification of Syrian Kurds, which Erdogan and his AK party see as a threat to their base of support in the population. Russia has been active in supporting Assad, committing men and materiel to shore up his regime. The US missile strikes on April 6 targeted a Syrian air base where Russian forces had been stationed, though Russia was notified before the strikes were launched.
The US has so far extended considerable assistance to the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, since the war began in earnest in 2014. Aiding the Kurds and their quasi-state of Autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq benefits the US, and achieves significant diplomatic gain for relatively little risk and outlay. This policy should continue. However, the US ought to discourage the Kurds from interpreting this assistance as an endorsement of a broader Kurdistan or formal independence. Other states and regimes in the region - whose assistance the US requires - actively detest such a proposal, and the US has neither the time nor the diplomatic resources to make it happen.
Instead, the US must now work actively with Russia, Turkey, and Iran to end the violence in Syria while recognizing that the Syrian state may not be possible to reconstruct as-was. Positive steps were taken during March’s meeting of the 68-nation anti-ISIS coalition. The US should take advantage of its own activities against ISIS in the east of the country, its position as a key supporter of the Syrian Kurds, as well as the war in Iraq to balance the interests of Russia and Iran in bolstering the Assad regime. But given the mutual distrust that remain among the conflicting groups, it’s likely that a peaceful resolution will require US involvement, both to forge it and to help maintain it. This may prove more difficult if the US pursues a more aggressive course against Assad’s regime, which Russia has worked hard to preserve.
In 2014 and 2015, as Iraqi resistance to ISIS collapsed and the chaos in Syria allowed the group to rapidly expand its territory, the US stepped in to arrest the collapse of groups resisting ISIS. It found allies in the Kurdish groups fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, whose Peshmerga emerged as particularly capable.
Since then, the US has assisted Kurdish and Iraqi forces in pushing back ISIS. American help has come in the form of airstrikes against ISIS positions, logistical assistance and combat support, and the deployment of special forces. More recently, American artillery and close air support units have been deployed in the battle to retake Mosul, which has raged since September 2016.
After a number of highly-publicized failures and policy retreats, US support for groups fighting Bashar al-Assad has largely dried up. Late in Obama’s presidency, the US focus in Syria shifted east to those zones contested by ISIS and Syrian Kurds. The latter group included the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who now receive US training and air support.
The YPG came of age during the Syrian Civil War, and on top of its curious blend of Marxist and Kurdish nationalist influences, the YPG is considered by Turkey to be closely affiliated with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a group blamed for terrorist attacks inside Turkey. The YPG and its allies, organized into an umbrella group called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have been effective in liberating Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria and have recently expanded their hold over areas populated by Sunni Arabs. Turkey, to keep the Syrian Kurds from total unification, launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, occupying a strip of Syrian territory. While this operation ended in March 29, Turkey has shown no signs that it plans to withdraw these troops. Along with Iran and Iraq, Turkey remains committed to preventing further Kurdish separatism.
Iran, meanwhile, has expanded its rhetorical support for the Iraqi Kurds. Iran has a large Kurdish population of its own, yet has for decades meddled in the politics of Iraq's northern Kurds, supporting a Kurdish insurgency in Iran during the 1970s. It has now ramped up its political support for the Iraqi Kurds.
Until recently, the policy goals of the Trump Administration appeared to focus on defeating ISIS and assisting with the recapture of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria. While the endgame in Iraq appeared relatively clear -- with the return of territory to the Iraqi sovereign state and the maintenance of the autonomous Kurdish zone prioritized -- the aims in Syria have been more opaque. The decision to launch missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad has confused the apparent goals of the Trump Administration even more, as President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have now expressed the view that Assad should be removed.
The array of competing interests in the war against ISIS now spreads from Moscow to Ankara to Damascus to Baghdad and to Washington. The US has taken a more active posture in the conflict, and Trump himself has vowed, in something of an implausible rhetorical flourish, to “wipe ISIS off the map.” He may now be in a position to deliver on that promise. But the real problem for the US and its local allies will come once the fighting has stopped. Simply put, no one fighting ISIS can agree on anything of substance except their mutual distaste for ISIS. The apparent reversal of US policy against the Assad regime makes the problem even more complicated, as the earlier aim of the US to defeat ISIS in Syria without becoming too embroiled in the nation’s civil war seems to be changing towards a more assertive, “Assad Must Go” position.
The US must be prepared to arbitrate among local groups and states, all of whom have a greater stake in the outcome than the US itself does. This should not involve an abandonment of the Kurds, either in Iraq or Syria, but neither should it involve support for further Kurdish autonomy.
Gregory Brew is a PhD Candidate at Georgetown University studying the history of U.S. foreign relations with the Middle East and Iran, the political economy of oil and global energy. He also writes on contemporary issues of energy and geopolitics and is a regular contributor to OilPrice.com.