Over the last several years, figuring out whose side America is fighting on in Iraq and Syria has not been easy, but in recent weeks that task has become impossible. Instead of hedging bets on a prospective victor in either conflict, the U.S. is apparently content to back all sides.
Shipments of American weapons to Syrian Kurds began Wednesday, fulfilling plans announced earlier this month. While the Pentagon refuses to disclose what weapons they are sending, those familiar with the shipments say they will likely involve a few armored vehicles, light arms and ammunition. The Kurds will participate in the operation to expel the Islamic State from Raqqa, the group’s self-proclaimed capital city.
The Turks are not happy with this move, as they view the American-backed Kurds as an extension of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party), a political party in Turkey that has been designated a terrorist group. Turkey hopes to convince Washington to abandon its Kurdish proxies in favor of a force of 10,000 Turkish-backed rebels, but it isn’t yet clear if the American administration is ready to do that.
“We told [Washington] there are many alternatives for Raqqa and they didn’t disagree,” one Turkish official familiar with the situation told Reuters. “They said ‘we understand your sensitivities, we don’t recognize their (YPG) territorial ambitions’.” The YPG is a Kurdish militia active in Syria, one of the main forces comprising the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a recipient of American arms.
Two days after the Trump administration announced its plans to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria, it also told Turkish officials it would support them in their fight with the PKK. That may not hint at any change in the decision to back the Kurds, but it points to an inconsistency in American policy, backing both the Turks in their fight with Kurds, and the Kurds in their efforts against ISIS.
Meanwhile in Iraq, the United States fights alongside Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, commonly known as Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMFs, in the effort to push ISIS out of its urban stronghold in Mosul. While the PMFs have been a supplementary force to the larger Iraqi army, the militias have at times played a more significant role in the fight against ISIS. Just this Monday a PMF liberated several Iraqi villages from ISIS control, and earlier on in the operation to take Mosul PMFs assisted the Iraqi Security Forces with clearing areas around the city.
Just a few miles west, however, in Syria, the United States is arming its rebel fighters in order to fend off those very same Shi’ite militias. This is done in the name of curtailing Iranian influence in the region, but it amounts to placing a major roadblock in front of Syria’s own push against the Islamic State.
The Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria are currently trying to link up to secure a vital surface supply route via the Damascus-Baghdad highway, but the U.S. does not want that to happen.
The route would help the Syrian government coordinate its attack on Raqqa, but the U.S. appears ready to scuttle any attempt made to secure the highway, even bombing a Shi’ite militia convoy allied with the Syrian government on May 18. This two-faced policy could hardly be more blatant.
In Northern Syria, moreover, the United States has resumed support for Free Syrian Army rebels, who have been fighting with the Syrian regime for years. The groups will operate in Idlib, the western portion of the Aleppo Province and parts of Latakia. One FSA commander denied reports that the rebels would be fighting the al-Qaeda-dominated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, confirming that the U.S. has resumed anti-regime operations.
The Trump administration announced in late March that regime change was off the table in Syria, but barely one week later launched a punitive Tomahawk missile strike in response to an alleged regime chemical weapons attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun. The chemical attack was never proven to have been carried out by the regime, but who ever needed facts to justify military action?
The U.S. is now engaged in fighting the Syrian government as well as the regime’s greatest enemy, the Islamic State. At the same time, America fights alongside Assad-friendly Shi’ite militias taking on ISIS in Iraq, but seeks to diminish their gains next door in Syria, where they also fight ISIS. Support for Kurds will likely continue, but with simultaneous cooperation with their Turkish enemies.
Add to the heap possible plans for long-term American presence in Eastern Syria, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Perhaps retired CIA officer Phil Giraldi is correct when he says America has no foreign policy, since that implies a coherent set of ideas and sensible plans. This, as we have seen, America does not have.
For now, the administration is willing to put $1 million on red, $1 million on black, and let the wheel spin.