Strategic Incoherence in Syria

Why Iran, Russia, and Turkey Can’t All Get What They Want

Turkish-backed fighters near Mount Barsaya in Syria, January 2018. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

After five weeks of fighting, the Turkish military and its allied Syrian-Arab militias have taken control of Turkey’s border with Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave in northwestern Syria. Ankara’s ground offensive has made slow but steady progress and, barring external intervention or a political decision to stop the offensive, it will almost certainly achieve its goal of upending Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) control of Afrin.

Yet Operation Olive Branch, as the Turkish offensive is known, is not only important for Ankara. It also has political repercussions for the other external actors involved in Syria’s civil war. In Washington, debates on U.S. Syria policy are rightly focused on questions about strategy and whether the United States can translate its military gains against the Islamic State (or ISIS) into a lasting peace settlement on terms favorable to U.S. interests. These debates, however, tend to ascribe strategic coherence to Washington’s adversaries. In reality, Turkey’s cross-border intervention demonstrates that the war’s main external actors are strategically adrift and potentially unable to realize their own goals without making difficult compromises.


The United States’ Syria policy, which U.S. President Donald Trump inherited from his predecessor, was originally designed as a narrow counterterrorist campaign to oust ISIS from territory it controlled in eastern Syria. This required Washington to ally with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella grouping of militias dominated by the YPG, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group active in Turkey for close to four decades. (In doing so, Washington has alienated its NATO ally Turkey.) The U.S.-SDF alliance has done its job: ISIS has been territorially defeated in Syria. And as the war shifted from offensive operations to holding captured territory, the United States has settled on a policy of using the territory it controls as leverage to try to force the Syrian government to make concessions at the UN peace talks in Geneva.

Washington has attempted

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