U.S. Intervention in Syria: Caught in a Bind as Allies Fight

Last week, Syrian rebels supported by Turkish forces seized the town of Jarablus from ISIS (I was sick last week or I would have covered it then). Now, a week later, Turkish forces remain in Syria engaging both ISIS and the Kurdish militia YPG in combat. American officials have issued clear warnings to the factions involved that they will lose American support if they continue fighting each other. However, as Turkish forces move deeper into Syria and as the Kurds increase their resistance (mobilizing supporters within Turkey to increase their attacks) it seems doubtful at the moment that they will heed the US’s warnings.

This puts the US in a terrible position. It’s main ally in the region (Turkey) is directly engaged in combat with it’s main ally in the fight against ISIS (the YPG). The US provides arms, training, and air support for both. The US also has Special Forces units on the ground embedded with the Kurdish fighters. Ultimately, this means the Turkish forces are now coming under fire from American weapons (even though US-supplied arms are not a majority of the YPG’s stockpile) from forces who are trained by and receive intelligence from the US. It also makes it a possibility that American Special Forces may find themselves coming under fire from Turkish forces. Though the US will be sure to supply Turkey with precise coordinates of its soldiers, accidents do happen. Indeed the US already shares such information with the Russian-led force in Syria, and yet Syrian regime jets came close enough to hitting American forces to warrant a response from the US. There is no way for the US to guarantee that the weapons it supplies the Syrian Kurds won’t be used against Turkish forces in Syria or transferred to the PKK (Turkey’s domestic Kurdish rebel group). There is also no way to guarantee the safety of American Special Forces from Turkish shelling and airstrikes, though it remains an unlikely event.

But the Turkish intervention puts the US in a bind in other ways as well. With Turkish soldiers now fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, the risk of NATO soldiers coming under attack from Russian or Syrian regime forces dramatically increases. The US would be obligated by treaty to defend Turkish forces from attacks by Russian and regime forces. Right now the rebels Turkey is supporting are surrounded on all sides by fighters either from ISIS or the YPG, but as they continue to advance they will eventually reach Syrian government controlled areas. This will put Turkish forces on the frontline opposite the Syrian regime and Russian air power. What happens then is impossible to say now and depends on a vast array of choices for the involved parties: whether the Turks halt their advance before reaching regime-controlled areas, how regime forces respond to Turkish forces in the area, whether Russia will strike Turkish forces in defense of regime forces, and so on. The United States is thus faced with the unenviable, and contradictory, task of trying to support its allies in their fight against the Syrian regime and ISIS while also trying to keep many of those forces from actually meeting on the battlefield. As ISIS loses ground and the buffer zone it created withers, the American policy of ‘support against ISIS only’ becomes more difficult to maintain. ISIS no longer is the threat it used to be: capable of making “strange bedfellows” and uniting hostile forces against it. As the “Caliphate” collapses, the American-led alliance of necessity begins to collapse as well.