The US raid that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi came hard on the heels of the Hasakah prison break—the largest US combat involvement with the Islamic State since the downfall of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate three years ago. With US support, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces managed to regain control of the prison after more than a week of fighting, although a significant number of militants managed to escape—a stark reminder that the chaos in Syria continues to reverberate, no matter how much the United States might like to move on.
Over the past decade, the lack of a coherent US policy toward Syria has had disastrous consequences, in the immediate region and beyond. Today, however, the United States can redress some of its past errors and help the people of Syria secure a sustainable peace. In doing so, the United States has the opportunity to improve the security outlook of the Middle East and the world at large—if it chooses to take it.
The single greatest blunder the United States made in Syria was to support armed Islamist opposition groups, in partnership with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. This policy effectively began in 2012, became increasingly reckless over the course of 2013, and was finally axed in 2017.The CIA’s vetting of rebel groups was supposed to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of radicals. Instead, most of the arms Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia smuggled into Syria went to armed groups with links to the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi-jihadist networks. Rather than pave the way for a political transition, such policies only fueled a destructive civil war that accelerated the emergence of jihadist armed groups.
The epitome of all that went wrong with US policy in Syria was Timber Sycamore—a billion-dollar CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels fighting the forces of Bashar al-Assad. Timber Sycamore ultimately failed to unseat Assad, helped turn Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia, and caused untold misery to the Syrian people. A three-year study funded by the European Union and the German government later established that efforts by the United States and its allies to arm Syrian rebels “significantly augmented the quantity and quality of weapons” of the Islamic State.
But not all US policies in Syria had negative repercussions. The US partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces represents a highly promising example of how the United States can contribute to peacebuilding and grassroots democratization in the Middle East. Doing so will not require large US troop deployments or a commitment to nation building; it will require only that the United States continue to support the achievements of its local allies.
A Rare Bright Spot
The military backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces is the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), or People’s Protection Units. At first glance, this organization may not appear like an obvious US ally. Founded in 2011 to defend Syrian Kurdish communities from the ravages of war, it is ideologically close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerana Kurdistan, or PKK), a US-designated terrorist organization. The most prominent figures in the YPG, moreover, all received PKK training. Still, from the outset of the war in Syria, the YPG was first and foremost concerned with protecting vulnerable Syrian communities from the violence of Islamist armed groups—and that duty took precedence over all other questions.
The United States first established relations with the YPG in 2012. In the following years, the rise of the Islamic State set the stage for ever-closer ties between the US military and Syrian Kurdish fighters. In the summer of 2014, as the United States marshaled a broad international coalition to fight the Islamic State, the YPG was already engaged in strenuous battles against the jihadists in Syria as well as in the borderlands of Iraq.
There, the YPG was fighting to save tens of thousands of Yazidis besieged on Mount Sinjar. Alongside its all-women sister militia, the Women’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin, YPJ), the YPG breached Islamic State positions, enabling thousands of Yazidis to escape into Syrian territory. US airstrikes against the Islamic State provided the YPG and the YPJ with much-needed respite. The United States then deployed special operations forces to Syria to fight alongside the YPG, and US support for Syrian Kurdish fighters later proved decisive in the battle for Kobanî, effectively preventing the fall of the city to the Islamic State.
The US military soon deepened its ties with the YPG, and in the process helped the group mature into a broader and more inclusive force—the Syrian Democratic Forces. Formally established in 2015, the Syrian Democratic Forces brought together the YPG, the YPJ, several Arab tribal militias, and minority self-defense groups such as the Assyrian Military Council and Yazidi units.
In a region where powerful state actors have long exploited sectarian and ethnic identities as vectors of influence, the Syrian Democratic Forces thus built a military coalition that is both Kurdish and Arab, and primarily Muslim but with Christian and Yazidi representation. All-women military units, moreover, came to represent an important avenue for the pursuit of women’s rights.
With the backing of the US military, these diverse forces went on to liberate much of northeastern Syria from the Islamic State, including Raqqa in October 2017. Subsequent advances in the Deir al-Zor governorate brought roughly one-third of Syria under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces and enabled the growth and consolidation of an autonomous administration based on democratic principles such as secular rule, freedom of religion, and equal rights, regardless of gender or ethnic background. These developments coincided with the greatest extent of US influence in Syria.
Unfortunately for the Syrian Democratic Forces, however, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, opposed any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria and remained committed to supporting Islamist opposition groups, despite their appalling human rights record. From 2016 onward, Erdoğan directed Turkey’s military to prop up the beleaguered rebels and help them take over territories that would otherwise have come under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
In early 2018, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, seizing the Afrin district in partnership with Islamist rebel forces and forcing thousands of Kurds and other minorities to flee. The Turkey-backed rebels went on to engage in systematic war crimes and human rights abuses in Afrin, as documented by the United Nations, human rights groups, and independent journalists.
Erdoğan, meanwhile, redoubled his efforts to cajole then US President Donald Trump into allowing Turkey to take over a thirty-kilometer-wide buffer zone along the Syria-Turkey border, allegedly to prevent the PKK from operating in the area. In October 2019, Trump agreed to withdraw US troops from Syria’s borderlands, thus enabling the Turkish military and Islamist rebels notorious for human rights abuses to take over a thirty-two-kilometer-wide strip of territory between the Syrian border towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. The military operation permanently displaced some two hundred thousand people, and the Turkish-backed rebels once again engaged in widespread war crimes and murders of civilians.
Trump brushed off the violence as irrelevant to US interests. His assessment could not have been further from the truth. The partial US withdrawal from northern Syria enabled some of Assad’s forces to return to Manbij, Kobanî, Qamishli, Hasakah, and Raqqa, as part of a ceasefire agreement that Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered with Erdoğan. Aside from strengthening the hands of Assad and Putin, the instability created conditions conducive to an Islamic State comeback in the borderlands of Syria and Iraq. The partial US withdrawal also greatly damaged the reputation of the United States: it made the US government appear incoherent and unable to stand up for its allies.
A Fragile Equilibrium
Against this backdrop, the fact that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria managed to survive is proof of the resilience of the Syrian Democratic Forces. With a total fighting force of approximately one hundred thousand, including both military and police, the Syrian Democratic Forces remain a major force within Syria. Assad and Putin may want them to disband, give way to the Syrian Arab Army, and join local police or paramilitary forces, but their commander-in-chief, Mazloum Abdi, does not want to accept such a poor deal—at least not as long as the United States maintains a military presence in Syria. The United States currently has approximately nine hundred troops in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and their presence is key to preventing an Islamic State resurgence and holding back both Erdoğan on one side and Assad on the other.
The status quo, however, remains fragile. Erdoğan, in particular, regularly threatens new military interventions against the Syrian Democratic Forces, and Turkey continues to violate the ceasefire on an almost daily basis, even carrying out air strikes to displace civilians from border areas.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State may no longer hold any territory, but it still has up to sixteen thousand active fighters in the desert borderlands of Syria and Iraq. Islamic State recruiters also continue to enlist poor locals. In 2021, they took advantage of Syria’s worst drought in seventy years to entice desperate farmers to join them with offers of money and food. The organization also continues to carry out deadly attacks in both Iraq and Syria, and is patiently waiting for an opportunity to revive the caliphate.
As the January 2022 Hasakah prison break dramatically demonstrated, the management of facilities and camps housing Islamic State fighters and their families represents yet another challenge for the Syrian Democratic Forces. Makeshift prisons in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria hold approximately eleven thousand suspected Islamic State fighters, while camps such as al-Hol host over sixty thousand women and minors, for the most part the wives and children of fighters. General Kenneth Franklin McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, has repeatedly warned that al-Hol and other such camps may give rise to the next generation of Islamic State fighters.
The Way Forward
To avert such a scenario, the United States needs to keep working closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces, alongside local tribes, on reconciliation programs. The Syrian Democratic Forces also remain an important partner in US counterterrorism efforts beyond the autonomous administration. They provided crucial intelligence in the hunt for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and al-Qurayshi. “The SDF is essential,” senior administration officials said after the al-Qurayshi raid. “We cannot do any of this without them. . . . [They are] critical, vital enablers for operations like this.”
An effective counterinsurgency strategy, however, also requires reviving the economy of northern and eastern Syria. Ongoing humanitarian efforts are a step in the right direction. But a far more consequential move would be for the United States to exempt the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria from the Caesar Act sanctions, which target Assad’s regime but effectively preclude foreign investors from doing business in any part of Syria.
The United States should also communicate to Turkey that its ceasefire violations in northeastern Syria are unacceptable. Holding back Turkey would in turn help the United States curtail the influence of Assad, Russia, and Iran in the autonomous administration.
The indecisiveness of the United States in Syria is in some ways understandable. Nation building and democratization efforts in conflict-torn countries rarely go well and the United States must grapple with numerous other challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, the rise of China, and climate change.
Yet to hope that the problems of Syria will remain confined to the Middle East would be shortsighted and dangerous. In an interconnected world, Salafi-jihadist violence, conflict spillovers, and humanitarian and refugee crises are bound to have far-reaching international repercussions.
Syria also differs from Afghanistan and Iraq in that the incipient democratization processes of its autonomous administration are not the result of foreign occupation but rather grassroots initiatives. In other words, the United States does not need to export democracy or engage in nation building in Syria—it simply ought to defend and consolidate the achievements of its local allies. To do so will not require large numbers of troops. As long as the United States remains consistent in its policies, the current light footprint would suffice to foster security and democratization in northeastern Syria. In turn, the autonomous administration’s commitment to secularism and equal rights could serve as a model for all Syrians and help inoculate poor and marginalized communities from the spread of Salafi-jihadism and other radical ideologies.
Federico Manfredi Firmian (@ManfrediFirmian) is a lecturer at Sciences Po Paris.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Jakob Reimann