Trying to stay off the slippery slope

So now US government officials are denying any intention of creating protected areas in northern Syria. They just want to clear the Islamic State from a portion of the Turkish border.

This makes no sense. ISIS governs the territory in question at present. Something will replace it if ISIS is “cleared.” The Turks can be counted on to prevent Syrian Kurds from filling the vacuum. Washington and Ankara should both be worried about what else might.

One possibility is a return to the area of the Syrian government, whether in the guise of the now decimated Syrian Army, Alawite/Shia militias or Hizbollah. From the Turkish point of view, that would be a disaster, as it would significantly strengthen Ankara’s archenemy Bashar al Asad on its southern border and provide him with the ability to allow infiltration of Turkey by both jihadi and Kurdish terrorists.

Or, more likely, ISIS could return as soon as American and Turkish attention focus elsewhere. The notion that ISIS can be cleared permanently without somehow providing minimal state functions in any area is unconvincing. Turkey is talking about Syrian refugees returning to the cleared area. They won’t do that unless there is some semblance of law and order in the area.

The Americans may be leaving the tasks of “holding” and “building” to the Turks. That makes some sense, since Turkish national interests are directly engaged. But a Turkish occupation of any part of Syria would rouse nationalist sentiments to fever pitch and risk unifying Syrians against a Turkish incursion.

The Turks could try to work through the moderate Syrian opposition, which however is not strong in northern Syria. It would need substantial assistance from Turkey to take over security and governance there. It is not clear that Ankara is prepared to take on that role, but it may have to do so if it wants to keep the Kurds, the Syrian government and ISIS out of the area.

Why is the Obama administration leaving this vital issue of who would govern in a liberated area of northern Syria unresolved? It wants to avoid getting involved in another state-building effort in the Middle East, where such efforts have repeatedly failed.

I understand the impulse. But President Obama has already acknowledged that it was a mistake to leave Libya to its own devices after the NATO-led intervention collapsed the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. Libya is today in chaos. Breeding in that chaos are several jihadi groups, including some that identify with ISIS. It would be no less a mistake to clear the Islamic State from a portion of northern Syria and leave who will then govern the liberated territory to chance.

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