The tragedy unfolding in Syria has riveted American attention anew to the problems there — problems that reflect contradictions we have avoided, but must grapple with now.
One problem is that America’s single-minded focus on ISIS since 2014-15 has more or less willfully disregarded the longer-term. This no longer seems sustainable. The post-ISIS future of Syria is at stake as the Sunni Arab majority, Kurds, Alawites and Christians, as well as Turks, Russians and Iranians, are duking it out. We must decide whether, and how, to engage in that contest, irrespective of the ISIS campaign.
A second problem has to do with America’s reliance on Syrian Kurds and, specifically, our partnership in the anti-ISIS campaign with a Syrian Kurdish militia that is a subsidiary of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a vicious war against Turkey for the last 40-plus years. Turkey hated this partnership.
As a military tactic, U.S. policymakers understood this bargain had risks, but saw no other option — and this militia proved decisive in crushing the ISIS “caliphate,” saving tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of lives. But Kurds make up only 10% of Syria’s population, have long been estranged from its Sunni mainstream, and cannot deliver long-term peace and stability. On the contrary, their power grab in Syria’s ethnically diverse north is a source of instability.
As the endgame unfolds, the Kurdish piece of our Syria policy, such as it is, cannot continue as before.
A third problem is the matter of Turkey’s alliance with the United States and Europe juxtaposed against its defiance of its allies, its cozying relations with Russia, and its obvious turn away from democracy and the rule of law. Always a difficult ally, Turkey has become odious. Pending but unimplemented sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system reflect the Trump administration’s unwillingness to choose between competing images of Turkey.
This, too, has become less realistic — on both sides.
U.S. policymakers have long known these conundrums could not last, but sought to manage them. They tried to negotiate security arrangements that would reassure Ankara, protect our Syrian Kurdish friends, and ensure ISIS stayed finished. Little of this had much U.S. public support. While not failures, few elements in this line of action achieved success either.
No wonder President Donald Trump got frustrated, just as many others have tired of “forever wars” that seem to slide from one objective to another with too little justification to the American people.
Now our abandonment of the Kurds and the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria have led to demands for sanctions to halt Ankara’s campaign. Congress may well legislate punishments. But they will do nothing to address threats to U.S. interests in Syria or in the region. “Sanctions” and “foreign policy” are not synonymous, any more than name-calling or impetuous decisions by presidents or other leaders of the United States or Turkey are the same thing as strategy.
We care about making sure that ISIS stays stamped out. We care about a reasonable level of peace and security in the Middle East, on which the world’s economy depends. We care about the immense suffering that has befallen Syria since 2012; we would like to see it end. We care about our NATO alliance. And all the while we see our ability to influence events in Syria shrinking.
Instead of cutting and running — or posturing and beating our breasts — our conversation about Syria, Kurds, Turkey, ISIS, and the way forward should focus on melding achievable goals with the means to achieve them. That means finding new ways to keep ISIS defeated, and using our leverage to get the Turks and the Syrian Kurds — who have no choice but to live together — into a better place.
It also means re-engaging with the non-Kurdish Syrians, including the Assad regime, distasteful though that will be, in an effort to get the country on a path toward more effective governance and social-economic order.
Ross Wilson, of River Falls, Wis., was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2005 to 2008. He now serves as board chair of Global Minnesota and as a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are solely his own.