Syria worsens

Alarm bells are ringing loud in Syria:

  • Israel has shot down an Iranian drone launched from a Syrian base at which Russians were present;
  • Syria has shot down an Israeli F16 with a missile system supplied by Russia, opening what Hizbollah has termed a new phase in the conflict;
  • The Israelis responded by trying to destroy a good part of the Syrian air defense system;
  • Turkish troops have crossed into a Kurdish-controlled Afrin in western Syria, where they lost a helicopter yesterday, and President Erdogan is threatening to send them also to Manbij farther east, where US troops are still deployed and cooperating with the Kurds;
  • US forces and local allies last week defended themselves aggressively against a Syrian/Iranian attack in eastern Syria;*
  • Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces are pushing north through Idlib province, the north of which Turkey controls.

There is now a real risk of Turkish/US clashes, conflict between Israel and Syria, Iran or Russia, as well as between Turkey and its erstwhile Russian and Iranian partners and between the US and Syria or Iran, not to mention Russia. The geopolitical takeover of what we have been thinking of as a civil war seems inevitable, as Mara Karlin suggested in Congress last week it was becoming. This is the kind of multi-sided mess in which miscalculation, miscommunication, escalation, and confusion are far more likely to prevail than reason or self-interest.

The US is in a particularly vulnerable position. It depends on Turkish bases for the air cover it gives its own, Kurdish and allied Arab troops in eastern Syria, but Washington has been unwilling to enforce Vice President Biden’s promise to Turkey that the Kurds would leave Manbij and remain east of the Euphrates. Turkey sees America’s Kurdish allies as a terrorist threat, because they are allied with Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey. While the Turks might like to see Washington stay in Syria and restrain the Kurds, Ankara is not yet satisfied that the Americans are doing that. Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow want the US out. The US has been saying it would stay, mainly to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State and counter Iranian expansionism in the region, but how its few thousand soldiers can do that isn’t clear, especially as they are losing some Kurds to the fight in Afrin.

What are Washington’s options?

It seems to me there are basically three:

  1. Sit tight, continuing to cooperate with the Kurds and to repel forcefully any Syria, Iranian, or Russian attacks, with the attendant risks.
  2. Get out, letting the Turks and Kurds go at it and yielding Syria to uncontested Iranian and/or Russian hegemony, perhaps hoping they will end up at each others’ throats.
  3. Negotiate deals that would allow the Kurds autonomy within Syria (as in Iraqi Kurdistan) in exchange for restraint in acting against Turkey and require the Russians to push the Iranians (and affiliated militias) away from the Israeli border in exchange for US withdrawal.

None of these options is attractive, but better ones are just not available. It is too late to revive the moderate opposition or push Assad out. The US does not have the kind of vital interests in Syria that would justify expanding its military footprint there, though that may of course happen if we sit tight. Force protection may require it, and mission creep would likely ensue.

I’m inclined towards Option 3, not least because it would restore relations with Turkey and get the Iranians and their proxies away from the Israeli border. But it admittedly involves a high wire act without much of a safety net. The Russians might like the Iranians out of their way, but they may not have the clout to make it happen. US withdrawal could vitiate any promises the Syrian Kurds make to Turkey.

Option 1 risks a disastrous attack on the few thousand US troops in Syria, not only by Iran or Syria but also by Turkey. Option 2 risks Iran taking over Syria and using it to launch attacks against Israel, with or without Russian connivance. Option 3 could of course devolve into 1 or 2, as circumstances dictate, but it keeps those options open in the meanwhile.

Let’s hope someone in a White House rocked wife abuse scandals and national security issues or someone in a State Department shedding its most experienced officers can spare a few moments for Syria as it worsens.

*PS (February 13): It now appears the Americans and allied Kurds killed about one hundred Russian “contractors” fighting with the Assad forces in their attack on the Americans in eastern Syria. While Washington worries about a budget and an infrastructure plan that are going nowhere as well as spousal abuse among White House employees, the war in Syria is definitely worsening.

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