Lack of Clear Strategy and Pushing Turks Away Concerns Experts

THO Hosts Panel On Syrian Conflict And Regional Security - Opening Remarks

27 Jun 17

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, Dr. Michael Doran, and Dr. Denise Natali discussed the latest developments in Syria, their implications for its wider region, and Washington’s strategy for addressing the conflict.

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.”

THO Hosts Panel On Syrian Conflict And Regional Security - Moderator Q and A

27 Jun 17

On June 27, THO organized a panel discussion with distinguished experts and former government officials on “The Syrian Conflict and Regional Security.”

Turkey, the U.S., and the YPG

Brig. Gen. Kimmitt said that we can’t “sugarcoat” the fact that the U.S. and Turkey have a fundamental disagreement on the ground in Syria over the role of the YPG. The U.S. is providing arms to the YPG as part of the Raqqa offensive, while Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organization. He stated that neither country will be able to get away from this disagreement and that its full repercussions will become clear once ISIS has been successfully pushed out of Raqqa and Mosul. 

Doran expressed his belief that the Trump administration’s decision to go forward with an Obama administration plan to arm the YPG was a mistake. “The deeper we [the U.S.] go into arming, training, equipping, and helping them [the YPG] take territory...the more we push the Turks away from us and push them into the hands of the Russians...[I]f the goal is to push back the Russian-Iranian alliance, then I think we ought to reach out to the Turks.”

Doran also noted that the U.S. government’s focus on defeating ISIS quickly has led it to make “a whole set of tactical accommodations with local powers that are [going to] complicate our position strategically in the long term.” 

“[T]hat territory from Baghdad to Aleppo is primarily Sunni Arab,” he said. “And we are aligning with everyone but the Sunni Arab[s].” He noted that this policy is changing under the Trump administration given its efforts to reengage with Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia. However, he emphasized that the U.S. needs to have Sunni Arab allies on the ground in Syria and especially in Raqqa. 

According to Kimmitt, for the U.S., the key to balancing its decision to arm the YPG against its longstanding alliance with Turkey will be implementing “a very strong DDR [disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration] program” for the YPG and other militias. Individuals fighting in militias in Syria will need to be given an alternative to fighting – “a pathway that leads from carrying a weapon to getting back to work [and] taking care of their families. That will probably be the hardest part of this, not only in Syria but also in Iraq.”

However, Natali emphasized that – at least in the near future – the PKK and the YPG are unlikely to recede as a force in northern Iraq and northern Syria. The implications of this for Turkey depend on “how much influence and support [the PKK and the YPG] have on the ground.” Natali noted that most Syrian Kurds she has spoken with do not want the YPG on the ground forever but concede that the group is necessary in the short-term to fight against threats like ISIS. Eventually, though, many communities want to see them leave, but it is unclear how this will happen. 

For Turkey, Natali said that it is highly unlikely that there will be a repeat of how Ankara eventually came to terms with the autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds over the course of the 2000s. “The Kurds in Syria have a fundamentally different relationship with Turkey – and by that, I mean the PKK faction that controls it – than the Kurds in Iraq,” Natali said. “As long as the hardline PKK fighting wing from Qandil controls all of northeastern Syria,” Turkey will not be able to establish a relationship with the Syrian Kurds in the way that one was established with the Iraqi Kurdish government.

As a result, the strain in U.S.-Turkey relations over the arming of the YPG is unlikely to dissipate. However, Kimmitt cautioned the audience to remember that, in the long view, the U.S. and Turkey have strong military-to-military relations. 

“[W]e do have tactical disagreements, primarily on the issue of the YPG,” he said. However, “the relationship between Turkey and the United States [and] Turkey and the rest of not a transactional relationship. That is a longstanding relationship between our militaries that goes back ever since Turkey came into NATO.” 

For Kimmitt, it is this long-term relationship that offers hope that the current tactical disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey can be resolved.

Special Thanks to our Sponsors: IMFEXIM and American Estetik Cerrahi Tip Merkezi for their contributions to our event.

THO Hosts Panel On Syrian Conflict And Regional Security - Closing Remarks

27 Jun 17