Last week, Turkey launched an offensive to take control of Afrin, a small and isolated enclave in northwestern Syria controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has fought an insurgency in southeastern Turkey for just over three decades. The Turkish offensive has sparked conversation about U.S. strategy in Syria, and in particular whether Washington can balance its relationships with Turkey—a NATO ally—and the Syrian Kurds, who have been the United States’ most reliable partners in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
This debate, however, is too narrow and masks much broader and as yet unanswered questions about the United States’ presence in Syria. Now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s victory over the remaining elements of the antiregime opposition looks inevitable, how will Washington manage that victory? And, more important, how will the United States get out of Syria?
SLEEPLESS IN SYRIA
As the war against ISIS winds down, a Syria-based U.S. special operations task force is now focused on hunting and killing ISIS leadership and holding territory taken from the group’s remnants in the Syrian desert. The shift in focus has prompted a subtle change in the U.S.-led training of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the joint Arab-Kurdish militia led by the YPG—from basic infantry tactics to those more focused on manning defensive positions. This has moved in parallel with U.S. President Donald Trump’s rollout of an updated Syria policy, which commits U.S. forces to maintaining a presence in the SDF-held northeast in order to continue fighting ISIS and hedge against any attempted expansion into the region by the Assad regime. The SDF could prove to be the centerpiece of a U.S.-Russian deal on Syria.
The United States and Turkey do not operate in a vacuum in Syria, and the other main external actors, Iran and Russia, continue to support Assad in his attempts to take
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