Crisis of Command
America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed militia led by the Kurdish-majority People’s Protection Units (YPG), is now involved in a high-stakes geopolitical standoff involving the world’s two strongest military powers, Russia and the United States. The SDF has spearheaded the U.S. war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, but as that war has slowed down following the near territorial defeat of ISIS, hard questions about the group’s future have been brought into focus. The SDF must now consider how to prepare for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, the likely victory of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war, and continued antagonism with neighboring Turkey. And although the answers to these questions have yet to be determined, the basic fact is that the SDF, surrounded by hostile adversaries, has a real interest in reaching a modus vivendi with the Assad regime.
Making a deal will be hard. The SDF wants to preserve its hard-fought autonomy in the Kurdish regions of eastern Syria, while the regime will be looking to reassert centralized control over the entire country. And as a nonstate actor dependent on a finite U.S. security guarantee, the SDF cannot risk a direct military confrontation with the regime or its two allies, Russia and Iran. Instead, it will have to use what leverage it has, while it has it, in order to reach a negotiated settlement.
At the moment, the trajectory of the war is advantageous for the Syrian Kurds. The regime and its allies are preparing for an offensive to recapture Idlib Province, Syria’s last major opposition stronghold. This campaign will prevent the SDF from having to make any hasty decisions and, in the event of a long and costly fight, could improve the group’s negotiating position. The United States and its Kurdish allies will thus have the most leverage immediately after the battle concludes, when the regime will be militarily weakened. As Assad’s forces recuperate, however, the U.S. and Kurdish advantage will begin to erode. The Syrian Kurds should thus take advantage of any regime weakness following the Idlib offensive and try to find a favorable conclusion to political talks with the Assad regime.
The Syrian Kurds are aware of their precarious situation. In the areas they control in northeastern Syria, ISIS’ rural insurgency is certain to remain a threat. So, too, is Turkey, since the YPG is the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state since 1984. The Turkish-PKK conflict has spilled over the border, most recently in Afrin, a former YPG stronghold in northern Syria that the Turkish military captured in March 2018. The YPG’s defeat at the hands of a professional military was not surprising, but it underlined the need for the Syrian Kurds to take advantage of their current position—including their tactical alliance with the United States—in order to manage their security challenges into the future.
The SDF, surrounded by hostile adversaries, has a real interest in reaching a modus vivendi with the Assad regime.
The SDF is a competent and well-disciplined militia, seasoned by years of experience fighting ISIS. Even so, the Syrian Kurds have benefited tremendously from U.S. support, and the YPG-Turkish war in Afrin clearly demonstrated that they cannot defeat a large conventional army on their own. Both the YPG and the PKK, however, have shown themselves capable in the past of using unconventional tactics to impose high costs on more powerful militaries. So although the Kurds cannot credibly deter a conventional offensive by the regime, they can signal that one will be difficult, perhaps reducing Assad’s appetite to try.
In the near term, most of the war’s major players—the Assad regime, its Russian and Iranian allies, and Turkey—will be focused on the upcoming battle for Idlib. An Arab-majority enclave in northwestern Syria, Idlib is the last independent anti-regime stronghold in the country and currently home to millions of people and thousands of military-aged males fighting with the various opposition groups in the area. Both the Syrian regime and Russia have signaled that a military campaign to recapture Idlib is forthcoming and could start as soon as early September. The outcome of the offensive is not in doubt: the regime and Russia can, through sheer firepower and relentless bombing, slowly reassert territorial control over much of Idlib. Yet the fight will be costly, as will the efforts to pacify the province after the main battle is over.
From the outset of the Syrian civil war, the YPG and the SDF have avoided clashing with the regime, instead tacitly agreeing to an entente with Assad, which allowed the regime to fight the groups that threatened its existence and the Kurds to focus on ISIS. This arrangement has spared the Kurds from direct regime assault, even as they have built up political and military institutions in their territory to rival those of the central government. In this sense, the Idlib offensive means that the Syrian Kurds can continue to play for time. But ultimately a deal will have to be reached. Assad’s goal is still to reassert full control over Syria, and once the threat from anti-government forces has fully receded, the regime will try to coerce the SDF into accepting the return of centralized rule from Damascus.
These parameters will form the basis of the current and future talks between Kurdish and regime officials. In July, representatives of the YPG-affiliated Syrian Democratic Council met with regime officials in Damascus to prepare for talks on the future political arrangement for Syria’s northeast. The Syrian Kurds will push a maximalist position from the outset, arguing for the creation of a decentralized Syrian government that empowers locals to govern with little interference from the regime. As a concession, they will propose allowing the regime to formally regain control over the borders with Iraq and Turkey, which would allow for the soft return of central government institutions to Syria’s northeast. Indeed, as part of the entente between the Kurds and the regime, the Syrian central government has maintained control over the border crossing in Qamishli and the adjacent airport. (This arrangement would extend regime control to other border crossings, which would allow for a more efficient collection of revenue and ensure that weapons aren’t smuggled across the borders to feed an insurgency.) The regime will also pursue a maximalist position, demanding a full return of Kurdish-run governing structures to regime authority and the abolition, or incorporation into the Syrian military, of Kurdish militias. Assad may offer to recognize the Kurds’ so-called cultural autonomy or grant them token concessions on Kurdish language and cultural rights.
The military asymmetry between the SDF and the Assad regime means that as the Syrian civil war moves into its final phase, the Kurds are now at the mercy of the United States. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has pegged its Syria policy to its broader conflict with Iran and views the Iranian-Syrian alliance as a long-term threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East. To combat this threat, the administration has indicated that it intends to stay in Syria until the Iranian issue is dealt with. Yet this official position is oddly divergent from that occasionally expressed by Trump himself, who has consistently called for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Uncertainty over Washington’s commitment to the SDF will undoubtedly hasten negotiations with the regime and could undercut Kurdish leverage.
The Assad regime, by contrast, is making plans to govern a postconflict Syria. It can therefore choose to wait out the United States and then, once U.S. forces have withdrawn, coerce the Kurds into capitulating to the government’s maximalist demands. Yet the Kurds have known from the outset that the United States would eventually leave Syria. They have thus kept the door open to talks with Assad and have never prioritized regime change, instead favoring the narrower, and more achievable, outcome of political decentralization.
The key to unlocking this puzzle may be the other great power in Syria: Russia. A scenario that guaranteed the future of a U.S.-influenced Kurdish enclave in Syria would be at odds with Moscow’s interests. Yet Russia has also maintained good relations with the Kurds—it has long-standing links to the PKK and has cooperated with the Syrian Kurds whenever necessary—and its primary interests are securing the Assad regime, which it has largely succeeded in doing, and convincing the United States to withdraw its forces. Thus, despite Washington’s and Moscow’s generally divergent interests, there may be room for a deal concerning the fate of the SDF, in which the United States agrees to withdraw its troops in exchange for viable security guarantees for the Syrian Kurds, which Russia could pressure its Syrian client to accept. Moscow, in this narrow case, could also be enticed to trade narrow concessions to the Syrian Kurds on issues such as local governance in exchange for U.S. guarantees about the security of the Assad regime. This outcome would not be anathema to Russian interests and, importantly, would help create conditions for a soft-regime return to all of Syria.
An entire generation of young Kurds and Arabs have died fighting the U.S.-led war against ISIS. A U.S. policy that accepts the reality of the Assad regime’s territorial victory is not a satisfying outcome to the Syrian civil war. For the United States, it is nonetheless imperative to grapple with that reality and think about how best to win a favorable settlement for its SDF allies. The United States and Russia, two adversaries, share a narrow interest in preventing the return of ISIS and in establishing a consensual political arrangement for the future governance of northeastern Syria.
Negotiating such an arrangement will not be easy: Assad and the Syrian Kurds have radically different ideas about how postwar Syria should be structured. The Kurds will have maximum leverage after the assault on Idlib, when the regime will have to consolidate control over hostile territory. As the regime regroups after battle, Kurdish leverage will steadily erode and its negotiating positions will weaken. The United States can help to offset that weakness if it adopts a narrow policy, tethered to the realities of the Syrian civil war and focused on protecting the SDF. If it does not, the Kurds could be forced to accept regime control or, once the United States leaves, face an onslaught that they won’t be able to hold off.