But the fall of Afrin does offer a particularly gloomy snapshot of Washington’s confused role in the Syrian war. Both the Trump and Obama administrations courted the YPG and backed their fight against the Islamic State — much to the chagrin of Turkey. The YPG is the most important fighting force within a coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which led the anti-jihadist fight in eastern and northeastern Syria and helped drive the Islamic State from its de facto capital, Raqqa. The group has won bipartisan sympathy on Capitol Hill and is celebrated by some columnists and public intellectuals in the West as a secular, “liberal” outfit operating in a world of reactionaries and extremists. (Critics point to the YPG’s own alleged abuses and crimes.)
Meanwhile, Turkey views such moves as tacit support for a de facto Kurdish state on its borders, and that disagreement has helped fuel the decline of U.S.-Turkey relations over the past half-decade. When Operation Olive Branch — Turkey’s Orwellian name for its campaign in Afrin — got underway, the United States had little influence to wield with Ankara in trying to stop it. The entreaties from President Trump urging Turkey to “de-escalate” went unheeded. Turkey, once violently at odds with Russia, even won Moscow’s cooperation before launching its offensive.
So when the going got tough, the Kurds in Afrin — like their ethnic brethren at other moments in the history of the Middle East — realized they were alone. Reports suggested that even as Trump denounced the Turkish offensive, administration officials were indicating to Ankara that the United States would be reconsidering its support for the YPG.
“The Afrin crisis shows how difficult it is for U.S. policymakers to walk and chew gum when it comes to Syria,” Nicholas Heras of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security said to my colleague Liz Sly in late January. “This is shoot-from-the-hip policymaking.”
A bit more than a month later, Sly reported on the effects of this ad hoc policymaking, pointing to reports that SDF fighters were withdrawing from battles against the Islamic State to help reinforce their beleaguered comrades in Afrin. “The international coalition let us down,” Aldar Xelil, a Kurdish official in Afrin, said in an interview over Skype. “They did not do what we expected them to do for us after a very long partnership.”
“There’s an erosion of trust in the American ability to protect its allies in Syria,” Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said to Today’s WorldView. Hassan argued that the United States could have headed off this latest crisis by more delicately handling Turkish grievances.
But that would require a deftness and coherence of vision that the White House demonstrably lacks, particularly when it comes to Syria. As my colleagues reported, there are vast divides within the Trump administration over the American commitment to the war effort. Trump himself is desperate to get out after having “knocked the hell out” of the Islamic State, while other officials are keen to deepen the American presence in Syria, hoping to eventually force President Bashar al-Assad from power and check the influence of his Russian and Iranian allies
“One senior official said the SDF should cut a deal with the Syrian regime, given that Assad is ascending and there is little U.S. appetite to expand the military mission. The SDF shares Assad’s goal of ridding Syria of opposition rebels, the Islamic State and Turkish forces,” The Washington Post’s Paul Sonne and Karen DeYoung wrote. “A second senior administration official, however, completely rejected the notion that Assad is winning, saying the regime is ‘weaker than it has ever been, certainly in this half of the civil war.’ ”
These divisions will dog the administration’s efforts. “The United States now faces a crisis of confidence in Syria. Its policy, which seemed to be going well in the fall of 2017 as anti-ISIS operations moved to stabilization, is now compromised,” wrote Seth Frantzman in the National Interest. “Plans to increase diplomatic personnel and increase aid, to remove IEDs and train security forces, are now unclear. Turkey, Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran all want Washington to close up shop in Syria.”
Even if it’s not about to close up shop, Washington is in a position where it’s constantly on the back foot as other regional powers take the initiative in Syria. “Turkey threw a stone in the lake,” said Hassan, “and the ripple effect isn’t going to stop any time soon.”