August 30, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Limits of U.S. Influence in Syria
The increased fighting between rebel groups supported by both Turkey and the United States against U.S.-supported Syrian Kurdish rebel units has exposed the inevitable outcome of U.S. policies centered on fighting the so-called Islamic State via groups that have their own differing priorities and targets. Non-Kurdish rebels—supported by the U.S. and, now to a more direct and coordinated degree, Turkey—have pushed south from Jarablus and are now engaged in fighting the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Syria already presents an extraordinarily complicated battlefield; that complexity has now increased even further, as U.S.-supported groups are seizing territory recently taken by other U.S.-supported groups.
As with U.S. efforts in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the Syrian conflict shows the difficulties and limitations of equipping rebel groups as a means to substantially influence their actions. In Afghanistan, the U.S. had even less direct contact with Afghan mujahideen groups, many of whom welcomed U.S. weapons but resisted sustained cooperation, even in a relatively covert fashion. The situation in Syria is far more overt but no less problematic in terms of balancing local fighting needs with varying and often opposing regional geopolitical concerns.
While comparisons between Afghanistan and Syria hold up in terms of problematic U.S. support for proxies, in Afghanistan, the U.S. and rebels shared a common unifying goal: the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. In Syria, on the other hand, the U.S. has prioritized a fight that few other groups have: the ‘defeat’ of the Islamic State. In doing so, it has leaned heavily on the Syrian Kurds, trying to recreate the very close and productive type of relationship that the U.S. has with the Iraqi Kurds.
From an anti-Islamic State coalition standpoint, the Kurdish-heavy partnership makes sense militarily for the U.S., but from a regional viewpoint, it has united rebel groups under Turkish support and clearly demonstrated the gulf between Western priorities and the aims of local and regional actors. The recent successes of the YPG, who make up a commanding part of the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have revealed the Islamic State’s military weaknesses while at the same time exposing regional fault lines.
The victory in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union immediately devolved into a civil war that led to the rise of the Taliban—a group that is currently stronger than it has been since 2001. Neither Pakistan nor any other entity was able to unify the different groups in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal; the idea of puppet masters and proxies fails to account for local affiliations and histories that supersede logistical and financial support. It is unclear what victory in Syria will look like, and even more unclear how to prevent further infighting and division once the war has ended. While Turkish influence over certain non-Kurdish rebel groups is substantial, it is unknown how long or deep it will run—especially with rebel groups further from the Turkish border. The U.S. influence and ability to steer events in Syria—which has never been as great as was assumed there or anywhere else—is at its nadir. Kurdish rebel groups might understand the limitations of U.S. support, but they will not appreciate them; the majority of non-Kurdish rebels do not view the U.S. as a partner, and will attempt to mobilize under what they hope will be substantial Turkish support. Turkey and the U.S. will continue to work together but with different priorities. In Syria, as it was with Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. is again supplying rebel groups without achieving significant influence over them.
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