On June 27, THO organized a panel discussion with distinguished experts and former government officials on “The Syrian Conflict and Regional Security.” Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt (former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East), Dr. Michael Doran (Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and former Senior Director in the National Security Council), and Dr. Denise Natali (Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University) discussed the latest developments in Syria, their implications for its wider region, and Washington’s strategy for addressing the conflict. The experts also touched upon disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey over the former’s support of the YPG. The panel was moderated by THO Executive Director Yenal Kucuker.
The U.S. Needs a Clearer Strategy Beyond the Raqqa Operation
Dr. Doran began the conversation by saying that the Trump administration’s strategy toward the Syrian conflict is not yet clear, but there are indications of the direction in which it may be headed. Doran noted that insights from President Trump’s election campaign can illuminate his administration’s possible Syria strategy.
First, then-presidential candidate Trump committed to an early defeat of ISIS. Second, he also elucidated a need to revitalize partnerships with traditional allies in the Middle East in order to push back against Russian and Iranian influence. Finally, Trump indicated that both the Bush and Obama administrations had been too ambitious in the Middle East and, as a result, the U.S. had been overcommitted in the region.
However, beyond the short-term goal of retaking Raqqa, Doran stated that the U.S. lacks a “vision for the political settlement after the defeat of ISIS.”
“It’s a weakness in the American strategy in that we haven’t started to articulate some kind of vision of how this is all going to develop,” Doran continued. While the U.S. may have an idea of what it would like to see happen after the fall of Raqqa – for example, the lessening of Iranian influence in eastern Syria – there is not yet any clear strategy from Washington for how to accomplish further goals.
Syria and Iraq: Hyper-Fragmented, But Still Intact
Dr. Natali noted that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have given rise to a narrative that these two countries, respectively, will soon break apart into several smaller states. The upcoming referendum on the possible independence of Iraqi Kurdistan has only encouraged this narrative.
However, Natali emphasized that the borders of Syria and Iraq remain intact; what’s more, actors like Turkey, Russia, the Iraqi government, Iran, and the U.S. have a vested interest in maintaining the territorial integrity of these states. Their internal borders, however, have been significantly upended. Syria and Iraq are now “hyper-fragmented” states that have undergone “enormous” demographic changes.
As a result, Natali stated that it is “inaccurate” to think of a post-ISIS, post-Syrian civil war situation in which there will be “homogenous regions.” Instead, regional and global actors will have to consider how they are going to develop a security and political architecture that will account for “small localized conflicts and hyper-territorial units” in Syria and Iraq.
The PKK in northern Iraq and its Syrian Kurdish affiliate, the YPG, are two key actors in these “localized conflicts.” Natali noted that regardless of whatever gains the PKK and YPG have made, these groups are still landlocked, meaning that the final shape of their territory will have to be determined through negotiations with regional actors – including Turkey.
Natali described the PKK issue as a trans-border issue; it is no longer merely a struggle with the Turkish state but also an internal issue within Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK, its affiliates, and even some of its local proxies control territory in the region, and the question of how or whether they will relinquish power in a post-ISIS era remains difficult to answer.
Natali also explained how the PKK has become a counterweight to the ruling KDP government in northern Iraq. The PKK has become “part of a social movement” that is seen by some frustrated, young Kurds as “an alternative nationalist group.”