January 30, 2018

Syria and Turkey: What the Arab Spring Wrought

The Trump administration has few good options when it comes to dealing with “allies” and foes.

What was the net result of the so-called “Arab Spring,” that “groundswell of democracy” supposedly spontaneously erupting across the Middle East beginning in 2011? The answer is probably best defined as the “Arab Winter.” That is, the cold reality that — contrary to purported waves of democracy sweeping across the region — these Obama administration-supported uprisings did nothing to remove despots from power, beyond replacing them with even worse despots — or else strengthening the current crop. Exhibit A: Syria.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched air strikes and sent ground forces against Kurdish forces in Syria’s northern Afrin province. The goal was to vanquish — or at least severely debilitate — the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Kurdish acronym “YPG”), which is backed with U.S. support but which Turkey has labeled “terrorist.” The YPG is closely allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose stated goal is the establishment of an independent Kurdish state. As Turkey is keenly aware, at least part of this “new” state would come out of Turkey’s hide as relinquished territory. With roughly 2,000 U.S. “advisers” on the ground in the Afrin province, clearly the U.S. is interested in the outcome. But the question must be asked, “What outcome?” What is the U.S. objective?

Given that Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, is an entrenched enemy of the U.S. — cemented of course by the Arab Spring and U.S. support of every side and yet no side during that upheaval — and that Syria is well-supported by Russia, prevailing wisdom would hold that the U.S. should back the YPG. Moreover, Assad does not see a Turkish invasion of Syria as a “bad” thing. On the contrary, Turkey is simply helping him “deal” with his problem in Afrin. Yet Turkey is supposedly still a U.S. ally, as a member nation of NATO — so shouldn’t we be helping Erdogan? Not exactly. Ergodan is an avowed tyrant. Instead, the U.S. should be most interested in protecting U.S. national security interests. That means we should be much less interested in “spreading democracy” around the world than ensuring peace and stability are maintained, especially in regions with proven hostile track records toward the U.S. The problem is determining the best path to that peace and stability.

President Donald Trump currently faces an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend dilemma with the YPG. The U.S. has no particular loyalty to the YPG, beyond its current role in fighting Assad. Both the Syrian people and Turkey view the YPG as a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, the U.S. also sees the YPG as the most effective organic force against the Islamic State in Syria. Furthermore, leaving U.S. troops in Syria means continual conflict with Syria; pulling them out means Russia, Iran and Syria gain the upper hand in the region. Neither of these seems an acceptable option.

There is no easy answer, but the answer cannot be either to completely destabilize the region or to allow it to come under state-sponsored-terrorism’s auspices. Iran wants to strengthen its sphere of influence in the region, and Russia wants to weaken the West, generally, and the U.S., particularly. The solution must lie in holding Russia and Iran at bay using traditional instruments of national power — military, economic, diplomatic and informational — while seeking political means to stabilize Syria and Turkey. In the end, as cold as it may sound, U.S. national security interests must prevail over “spreading democracy” or other collateral interests: Existential national security needs always win out over the need to “make the world a better place.” That may mean leaving two despots in power for the time being while using every available means to ensure their enablers are kept in check. The alternative is simply to take the gloves off and find out who’s left standing when the dust settles. As far as U.S. national security interests are concerned, the better choice is Option A.

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