Northern Syria: The United States, Turkey, and the Kurds

Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Rodi Said/Reuters

Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Chair in International Relations, Lehigh University

Max Hoffman

Associate Director, National Security and International Policy, Center for American Progress

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Adjunct Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations (via videoconference)

Amanda Sloat

Robert Bosch Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution 

Douglas Ollivant

ASU Future of War Senior Fellow, New America

Panelists discuss the ongoing conflict in Northern Syria and how the United States should handle its relationships with the affected parties, including Turkey and the Kurds. 

OLLIVANT: So good afternoon. I’m Douglas Ollivant. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, their What to Do About… Series. This one today will be on northern Syria, the United States, Turkey and the Kurds.

I’m pleased to be joined by a distinguished panel, three of us on stage and our friend Gayle on videoconference. The What to Do About… Series highlights a specific issue and features experts who will put forward competing analyses and policy prescriptions in a mock high-level U.S. government meeting. And on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations, I’d like to thank Richard Plepler and HBO for their generous support of this series. And a reminder to everyone, both on stage and in the audience, this record is on—this meeting, unlike most CFR meetings, is on the record today. So choose what you say accordingly.

So we’re going to start today by having a mock high-level U.S. government meeting, something National Security Council-like. So I’m going to ask each of—as the principal who needs to be informed as to what our policy is going to be—I’m going to ask each of our experts to, first, briefly summarize what is the situation in northern Syria? And we will start with Gayle, since she is either there or most recently there. Where are you today, Gayle?

LEMMON: Right now I’m in Los Angeles. And a pleasure to join all of you. I was most recently in northeast Syria, I guess three times since August. And the thing that I really think is remarkable and goes largely unseen, I think, because of so many other competing stories demanding America’s attention, is that there is enormous challenge alongside real and visible progress on the ground. And you really do see over a six-month period, and then almost now nearly a 12-month period, change for the better, that people are leading themselves. And I think that goes from the security situation, to schools that are reopening, to a situation where you have shopkeepers and restaurant owners and people who really fighting for their own futures, already pushing forward in very significant ways.

And that, I think, is a story that we haven’t seen. And I think that has been achieved because of a local hold force that has had some success in really bringing a local population into the mix, as well as the fat that the U.S. presence has been there. I was most recently on the Manbij border, I guess about 12 days ago, between—where the U.S.-backed CF-Manbij military council forces are, and where that border ends. And I do think that what you see there is a fragile stability that wants to hold. I had the privilege of spending a day also in Raqqa, interviewing young men and a lot of women who—including women who are now in the security forces, women who are opening stores, women who are serving as local council leaders. And the one thing you hear from everyone is a desire to push forward and a real desire to keep the fragile stability that they have and build upon it.

OLLIVANT: Max, if you can add.

HOFFMAN: Well, thank you, Douglas. I thought I’d try and step back and give a brief story of how we got into this situation. Of course, the U.S. approach to Syria at this point leaves us very few good options. The initial attempts to contain the conflict, to reduce the spillover effects and how they—you know, their risk of destabilizing our regional partners—particularly Turkey, Jordan, and other countries, like Lebanon—had really failed by 2014. 2014 was a brutal year in the war. Seventy-five thousand Syrians were killed, millions displaced, beginning to destabilize the region and spark populist upheaval in Europe. So the containment strategy had failed.

The U.S. had also begun trying to build up moderate opposition forces when it became clear that Assad was not going to fall on his own. That effort really by late 2014 and into 2015 was also failing as a result of infighting among those rebel groups, really squabbling among outside backers, including the United States, and very uncertain commitment from us and others. And of course, late 2015 the Russian intervention really put an end to the hopes that the regime would fall on its own or with our sort of moderate investment. And so that began a process of U.S. refocusing the policy. The emphasis came to be on defeating ISIS, which had risen very quickly and represented a moral abomination that could not be allowed to stand. And then also to trying to deescalate the conflict in Syria wherever possible, with much less focus on the eventual status of Assad or his regime.

And the goals here were basically humanitarian. It was just the war and the suffering it was causing in and of itself had become a strategic risk to the United States and a real destabilizing force in the region. And given that change in focus, the YPG began to emerge as a—as a potential partner for the United States. They had been fighting ISIS and other jihadis for some time. They were treating the civilians in the areas they controlled in northern and northeastern Syria reasonably well. You know, in the context of a bloody and convoluted Syrian civil war. And at the time, they were in negotiations with the Turkish government, our NATO ally. And so the U.S. was considering a partnership with the YPG. The attack on Kobane plastered across CNN and TV screens around the world forced the U.S.’s hand in many ways. I think there was a feeling that ISIS could not be allowed to win so spectacularly and so publicly. And there were too many ISIS targets in Kobane to ignore. So at that point, the U.S. sort of tripped and fell into this policy, initially, of supporting the YPG against ISIS.

And it grew from there, because the YPG and then the follow-on force, the SDF that Gayle referred to, proved to very effective in fighting ISIS and proved to treat civilians reasonably well. There’s some exceptions. There were some accusations of forced displacement. But it’s been, all in all in the context of Syria, a positive story. And so now, you know, we are at this decision point. And the decision we face is whether to sustain this investment in the hopes of stabilizing eastern Syria in partnership with the SDF, in the hopes of continuing to push the SDF to open up to other ethnic and sectarian groups. It’s now 50 percent Arab, according to the Pentagon. And working with them to just not engage in a large nation-building operation, but try and get key infrastructure, get the lights, get the water back on to alleviate humanitarian suffering and reduce the odds that ISIS will come back in some form.

And the big risk here is that we hold this very delicate front line in the north around Manbij against the Turks and their proxies, and also the entire length of the Euphrates now against the Syrian regime, and its backers, including Iran and Russia. So there are huge risks in holding the red line. There are also huge risks in abandoning that red line, because that abandonment would likely spark a new phase in the Syrian war, where the regime would move into the east to reassert control with the concomitant humanitarian suffering and bloodshed that that would bring, and the displacement that that would bring. So we’re teed up at this very delicate decision point, which we’ll return to in the second round.

OLLIVANT: Amanda, your take.

SLOAT: Thank you. I’ll build a little bit on what Max had said, and then expand out from that closer to where we are right now. For me, the biggest issue is that the United States—and I include both the Obama administration, of which I was a part, as well as the Trump administration—has never had a Syria policy. There was an Iraq policy. There was a counter-ISIS strategy. But there never was a clear Syria policy. And that contributed to a lot of the problems that we had in the past, and it’s continuing to contribute to the problems of where we are now. I would disagree a little bit with what Max had said in terms of some of the initial engagement by the Obama administration in the war in Syria. I don’t think President Obama ever really wanted to get the United States involved in the conflict in Syria. He saw it very much as a civil war that he was not interested in getting the United States involved in, especially given the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan.

And so when ISIS arose, part of the difficulty that the United States had in terms of recruiting and training forces to counter ISIS was that the U.S. needed forces that were going to be willing to fight Assad. Many of the opposition forces had been spending the last several years fighting against the regime. It was very difficult to get them to turn away from the regime to focus on ISIS. And so part of the advantage for the United States of the YPG was that they were one of few forces that was actually willing to take on ISIS. Along the way in this, the YPG never disavowed their links with the PKK. They also never disavowed their links with the regime. So I agree with Max that the YPG was a very effective fighting force on the ground. Some would make the argument that part of their effectiveness came from years of engaging in battle with the Turkish state, which made them much more organized and effective. But they certainly were organized and effective on the ground.

The challenge then that the United States government faced was the fact that there are clear links between the YPG and the PKK, which is a designated terrorist organization by the United States and by the European Union. The argument that the United States government was able to make is that the YPG is not a designated terrorist organization, the way that the PKK is. So this was a legal distinction that the U.S. government made, which the Turkish government never accepted. Max alluded to somewhat the spillover effect that U.S. cooperation with the YPG in Syria ended up having on Turkish politics on the ground.

There was some spillover of ISIS-related violence, along with a number of factors that led to the breakdown of the two-and-a-half-year ceasefire that the PKK had, and ongoing peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK. That came between elections in 2015, where the HDP, which is the Kurdish party, broke for the first time the 10 percent threshold to get seats in parliament, denying Erdogan’s AKP a majority in parliament. Erdogan and the government dragged their feet on coalition negotiations, this peace process broke down, there was a spike in the resumption of government Kurd violence, elections were rerun in November of 2015, and Erdogan was able to get a governing majority.

Now, in conversations that the U.S. had with the Turkish government over the years, Erdogan was pretty clear about having two red lines. One was that he did not want the United States providing direct arms to the YPG, which was part of the way—through the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which was a coalition of the YPG along with Syrian Arabs—the U.S. was able to provide support to the Syrian Arab forces within that coalition. That changed with the battle in Raqqa earlier last year, I guess, when the Trump administration took the decision to provide direct arms to the YPG.

The second red line that Erdogan was always very clear about was that he did not want the YPG forces crossing east of the Euphrates. His concern was that the YPG, in addition to fighting ISIS, were also pursuing some of their own political ambitions on the ground, in particular the desire to create a contiguous Kurdish region across Northern Syria, which was going to run alongside the Turkish border. So he was tolerant of them engaging in activities moving towards the Euphrates, as long as they didn’t cross. And this is why Manbij has become the big issue that it is now, in that the YPG did cross the Euphrates. They engaged on the frontlines of the conflict in Manbij, and they’ve remained.

The United States government had promised the Turks that they were going to leave. And this is something that Erdogan tends to remind the U.S. government of repeatedly. So the big announcement yesterday coming out of Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu’s meeting with Secretary Pompeo is that the United States and Turkey appear to have agreed on a roadmap for how to deal with the situation in Manbij. And we can come back and talk about that later, in terms of some of the challenges that I think they’re going to face on the implementation of that.

The problem now for the United States is a couple. One is this ongoing effort to try and repair relations between the United States and Turkey that have been damaged by Turkish mistrust, coming of what the United States had done with some of this action in Syria. The second is going to be that the U.S. needs to actually work out a Syria policy, with the president having been very clear about it’s his desire to withdraw troops from Syria within the next several months, as soon as ISIS is going to be defeated, what that is going to mean for the civil war, the remaining balance of forces on the ground.

And then third, which Henri will probably talk about, is what the implications of this are going to be for Turkey’s domestic politics going forward, particularly with elections coming up in several weeks where, could the Kurdish competitiveness within these elections is going to be a significant factor in whether or not the AKP or opposition is able to control the balance of the party within the parliament.


BARKEY: Well, everything that could be said has been said, but not with my accent. (Laughter.) So let me—let me look at more strategically—a little bit more strategically at what happened in Syria, with ISIS’ invasion, or the emergence of ISIS suddenly. We tend to forget that ISIS did not just attack Syria and Kobane, but it also attacked Iraq. And Mosul, second-largest city in Iraq, fell to ISIS. So, I mean, the Obama administration in 2014-2015 was really facing a calamity with the Iraqi Kurdish forces collapsing, the Iraqi army collapsing, obviously there was no Syrian army to speak of. So you had, essentially, to make a choice that—and a choice that had to be made relatively quickly. So it’s understandable that they went with the YPG, because there were no other alternative actors on the ground, at least in Syria.

In Iraq, they started rebuilding the Iraqi military. They started rebuilding the KRG forces. Eventually Mosul was retaken. But it took a very, very long time. So you had to put essentially a limit to ISIS intervention and ISIS success, if you want. And the YPG turned out to be the tool. It was the only tool that the United States could use. And in some ways, I think it has turned out to be the smart—the smart move. I mean, I’ll talk about the consequences in a minute. That’s one—I mean, from an American perspective, I think, that was the critical issue that had to be confronted.

The problem—the other strategic issue was how Turkey was looking at this. Turkey at the time was engaged in a peace process at home with the PKK. In a way this process had started in 2009, became public in 2011, and it was a very, in some ways, audacious process. People were being sent to see the PKK leader Ocalan in prison, this was televised, there were conversations. The mood in Turkey had changed radically. I mean, I went to the Kurdish southeast during that period were you could see signs in Kurdish, something that was never allowed in the past in Turkey.

And all of this was going relatively well, until Syria happened. And I haven’t talked to Erdogan, I don’t think he would like to talk to me, but the—I think what Erdogan saw in Kobane, especially with the American intervention in Kobane, a second KRG. That is to say, Turkey, yes, made its peace with the Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkey became exceedingly good commercial allies, political allies. Turkey used the KRG to push back on Baghdad’s ambitions over time. So the KRG was a great, shall we say, pro-Turkish experiment. In a way, the KRG was more pro-Turkey than it was pro-Baghdad.

Even in Syria, I mean, the Turks complain today about the PYG being an offshoot of the PKK. Oh, yes, it is an offshoot of the PKK. The PKK created it. And, by the way, nobody noticed it when the PKK trained the Syrian Kurds into an effective fighting force. But the Turks were dealing with the PYG. The Turks—the PYG leader—sorry, the PYG is the umbrella organization over the YPG, or the political organization. The leader of the PYG, Saleh Muslim was in Ankara being feted by Turkish officials. He helped them—he helped the Turks remove the remains of an old Ottoman—pre-Ottoman Turkish leader who was buried in Syria. I’m not going to bore you with the details.

So Saleh Muslim was a frequent guest in Ankara. And suddenly, come September 2014, the PYG and the YPG become enemies number one. There was a logic to that. And the logic is, just like we helped create the KRG, effectively what Erdogan saw was that we were creating a second KRG, or the roadmap, if you want, for an American intervention in Syria meant that there would be another autonomous Kurdish region in another country where there’s a Kurdish minority. It doesn’t take to be—you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that with a very active Kurdish population in Turkey—in a way, the most politically active, politically sophisticated movement—that the Kurds would—in Turkey would be the third place that would want autonomy. That is where, I think, the crisis began. Because Erdogan, at that point, said: I’d rather see Kobane fall into the hands of ISIS than see a Kurdish entity of any shape or form in northern Syria.

So almost three years later we are now faced with a situation where there are more than 2,000 American troops, there are French and British forces as well. They are allied with the YPG. And so the Turks have pushed, as Amanda said, about the fact the east—sorry—west of the Euphrates, in the town of Manbij, the YPG is there. I actually—and maybe Amanda knows the answer to this—I’ve never understood why the YPG stayed in Manbij after it conquered Manbij, unless CENTCOM wanted them to stay there. In other words, it was in our interest to keep the YPG west of the Euphrates. And that became a major crisis. I think that the mistake that United States made was early on, as we had promised the Turks, we should have told the YPG to move back west of the—east of the Euphrates. And they would have done it. And I think if we didn’t do it, it’s because we never wanted them to do it because we needed their forces to—but, to conclude, let me just say, looking forward, no matter what happens in the next few weeks, in the next few years, this Syrian conflict is going to last. It’s going to metastasize. And in the end, the Syrian regime—which ever Syrian regime there is Damascus—will have to deal with the Syrian Kurds.

I think it is a mistake to think of the Syrian Kurds just as appendages of the PKK. They are genuine. They are local. Yes, they’re aligned with the PKK ideologically and politically, and they’ve been trained by the PKK, but they are Syrians. They are not Turks, right? And they will operate in Syria. And the regime ultimately will have to make a deal with them, just like Baghdad eventually made a deal with the KRG. It may not be a KRG-like arrangement. It may be far less autonomous. But I suspect that there will be some kind of a Kurdish entity, and the Turks will not like it. I’ll talk about the elections in Turkey maybe in the second round.

OLLIVANT: Very good. So I guess summarizing, we’ve had the relative success taking us from the debacle that was Syria three years ago to ISIS being defeated. And while there are certainly questions that remain, since we’ve bracketed questions about the regime, but we now have a kind of second-order problem from the success of that ISIS policy. We have this Kurdish cantonment along the Turkish border. And the Turks see this as both a PKK safe have and, perhaps more importantly, a political problem and exemplar for their Kurdish population. So certainly, this can’t last, or is going to come—need some type of resolution. But we do have this fragile stability that Gayle is talking about.

So what do we do now? And I need each of you to be relatively quick, since we’re running out of time. Gayle—same order. Same order.

LEMMON: Yeah, great. Sure. So I just want to pick up on two points that Amanda and Henri made, which is that there are competing ground truths and competing narratives that have characterized what is virtually a policy-free zone on Syria since roughly 2012. And what you see now is all of that coming to bear. And in the middle of that, the group truth narrative, that you see on the ground when you move from Raqqa, to Manbij, to Tabqa, to Ayn Issa, to all of these towns, is that there are—there are small, green shoots of stability that people are forging for themselves. And there is an alternative to the Assad regime that is being seen. And that when you talk to people who could choose between going back to the regime or going to SDF-held areas, they are going to SDF-held areas.

And then you talk to people who survived the Raqqa fight. A young woman I met who is 22 now, was a chemistry student, is now in the Raqqa police force. And she said, you know, two of her cousins were beheaded by ISIS. And the reason why she is with the local police is that she wants to protect her city, and her father wanted her to be part of this. So you see this push. And I think in terms of where we go next, I would say nearly along in some of the post-9/11 conflict in which the U.S. has played a part, there is a really very visible direct movement towards progress. It isn’t perfect. There are all kinds of challenges, and I’m happy to discuss them.

But in the interest of time we’ll move forward to the big picture, which I think is often lost because in some ways Syria has become a Washington conflict. Those who have a view that is more favorable to the Turkish side really say that it’s all PKK. Those who are pretty sympathetic to the Kurds, say: Come on, let’s see what’s going on. And in the meantime, what we miss often is there are moms and dads who are fighting for a stable future, who are pushing to not be part of an Iranian or a Russian-controlled area in Syria, and who are really—with, you know, a small and minimal U.S. troop presence—have made real progress in starting from the ground to rebuild their lives.

And one final point I want to make: Every loss of American life is incredible tragic. But if you think that in the ISIS fight in Syria fewer than 10 U.S. forces have been killed. And when you go to Manbij and when you—or when you go to Qamishli or Kobane and you walk through the cemeteries, you see who it who’s paid the price for the ISIS fight, which is young women and young men whose families come and visit them on Fridays, who have been lost in large and significant numbers to the ISIS fight, with a U.S. backing. And I do think that the ground truth is often lost between competing narratives in Washington, and what has been a relatively policy-free zone. And that with minimal maintenance of troop presence and real diplomatic muscle, pushed to find where the points of alignment are between Turkey and the Kurds.

And I actually do think that there are places to come in agreement, at least—and I’m not trying to be rose-colored her—but what you hear on the ground is not people advocating for a Turkish—oh, sorry—a Kurdish state, that would raise Turkish ire. I think it is—I think Henri’s point about there being a second KRG is the concern, because quite honestly when you go from Irbil and then you move around in the Kurdish areas, short of five-star hotels being lacking and fancy restaurants, you do have the same freedom of movement. We drove through seven hours at night through any number of checkpoints with minimal challenges. And I think that’s fairly rare to be able to do.

So I do think there are successes to be built upon. There is with a military maintenance of where we are now actual gains to be had in a very tough neighborhood. And I think diplomatic energy must be employed to really work with the Turks on where this goes. And clearly this is all heading toward the endgame of what actually comes next when it comes to a conflict which has cost, at minimum, half a million lives thus far.

OLLIVANT: Max? And I kind of want to focus the rest—I mean, were Syria an island this would be a lot easier. But, you know, we have Turkey here. And we have a lot of other equities with the Turks. How are we going to balance this moving forward?

HOFFMAN: Yeah. Well, first, I agree with Gayle that there is—there is also a moral side here, and there is the possibility of maintaining the stability in the east. And we have the advantage of having the Euphrates, which is a pretty clear dividing line. I think the separate case of Manbij should be resolved with Turkey, and it looks like will be over the course of six months to a year. It will be very delicate and messy. But for the portion east of the Euphrates, there is an opportunity to salvage some less-horrible outcome from what has been a catastrophic Syrian war. In the west of the country Idlib and the southern front are the next two big catastrophes waiting to happen when the regime moves into those areas. And we, as the United States, have made clear that we will not do anything to stop that, for good reasons and bad reasons.

But here in the east, there is a chance to prevent the Syrian war from burning on further humanitarian catastrophes. It’s also in our strategic interest, because it would prevent the likely reemergence of ISIS. It would also prevent further displacement into Turkey, into Iraq, which they’re already hosting millions of refugees with big, big destabilizing effects. The big question, though, will be that red line, because eventually the regime and the Iranians and possibility the Russians will probe it, and possibly the Turks and their proxies because they’re not happy about this, as we know. And I think two things will be needed. There will need to be a clear U.S. deterrent statement made. That has been made vis-à-vis the Russians with this airstrike against the mercenaries that advanced across the line. And we haven’t seen, you know, an outright military push since. And that’s a good thing.

But it will become more difficult as it’s sort of subtle probing and trying to co-opt tribes in the east and try and bribe people and buy people off. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it will be to hold that line and maintain stability. So the U.S. has to use the leverage it gains front controlling the east the SDF, controlling much of the oil and prime agricultural regions in that area, to demonstrate to Assad that his only path forward to reconstituting his economy is through making a deal. And as Gayle alluded to, the likely deal—you know, the deal has to include some degree of autonomy not just for Kurds in the east, but for all of these populations, and the ability for these local councils to administer their own affairs. The U.S. has a crucial role to play in urging restraint on all sides in that region to prevent further ethnic clashes and the descent back into chaos.

It can’t be a big investment. A big investment would be counterproductive. But we can do key infrastructure. We can moderate between the factions. And we can use our huge leverage on the SDF to press them to respect ethnic diversity, to include everyone in their basic security apparatus. And also, most importantly in many ways, to avoid any conflict with Turkey. Turkey would suffer more if the U.S. were to leave, as they—as they like to call for, tomorrow. If every U.S. personnel got a helicopter and flew out of Syria, what would happen? The regime would roll in. More displacement. And eventually the PKK would operate, with Assad regime backing, out of northeastern Syria into Turkey. Today the PKK conflict with Turkey is largely in southeastern Turkey and out of Qandil in Iraq. And it’s driven in many ways by Turkish domestic politics, by President Erdogan’s desire to root them out, to wipe them out, and to win over the nationalist right.

So in the Syrian context, I think the U.S. is best-served by holding the line and building on the progress, and trying to use that leverage to craft some sort of—some sort of deal vis-à-vis the regime that prevents this war for burning on for another decade.


SLOAT: So I’ll return to where I started, which is that the U.S. needs a Syria policy. And I think the same what that we have to deal with political domestic realities in Turkey and with the Kurds, we need to deal with domestic realities here at home. And President Trump wants out of Syria. He’s been extremely clear about that. He ideally wanted the forces that we have there gone within 36 hours. His advisors managed to persuade him that that was not actually feasible, that ISIS had not been defeated. So he seems to have given them a stay of about six months to finalize the counter-ISIS operations. And then Trump wants out. He’s already cut off over $200 million worth of stabilization and reconstruction assistance that the State Department and AID were planning to invest in northwestern Syria rebuilding there.

So, you know, we can sit here and talk about all sorts of strategies, and maybe his advisors will manage to change his mind on this six months from now, as they have recently. But the reality is that Trump wants out. I think a lot of the Republican establishment had been quite critical of the Obama administration for not more aggressively countering Iranian influence in the region. I think a lot of his advisors see Syria as a place to do this. Frankly, I don’t think Trump agrees. And he’s not interested in countering Iran in Syria. I think there’s also a question of, if we were to stay, as Gayle said we’ve got 2,000 special forces there. That’s actually not that many, and they’ve been there primarily in a trade and an advise and an assist role with the SDF. So 2,000 special forces are not necessarily enough to significantly counter Iranian influence on the ground. And then there’s also a question of whether we expect the SDF, the YPG to continue operating long-term as our proxy force in northern Syria, to continue fighting off the Iranians.

So I think there’s one set of options that we have to look at. If the U.S. does decide to pull out of Syria, what does that look like? I think as unhappy as the Turks are about having a long-term American security presence there—because it essentially gives security guarantees to the YPG—I think the Turks are also going to be equally unhappy about a precipitous American withdrawal from the region that then ends up opening a lot of questions within the region. There’s also been a lot of talk about the YPG as synonymous with the Syrian Kurds. The YPG certainly are Syrian Kurds, but there’s also a whole basket of Syrian Kurds who are not members of the YPG.

And I think we also do ourselves a bit of a disservice by talking about them as a—as a unitary group. Certainly, we are going to need the Syrian Kurds to be involved in any sort of peace process. There have been Syrian Kurds that have been involved in the Geneva and other talks, that are not affiliated with the YPG. But that’s going to end up being a factor that we’re going to have to take a look at. The YPG have not cut off their links with the regime. There was certainly talk in Afrin and other parts of western Syria about whether Russia would try and negotiate some sort of deal with the Turks to hand territory over to the regime and what that would mean with the SDF there. So that’s one basket of issues.

The second basket then is if the United States does stay, what does that look like? And then you start to get into some of these questions that I was raising earlier in terms of whether or not these American special forces are going to continue engaging with the Iranians, what they’re actually going to do, and what we envision for a long-term political process within Syria. To me, the nightmare scenario is going to be, you know, that you’re going to end up having Assad, the Alawites, continuing to control the area on the west of the country, coast. Russia maintains its base. You have some sort of Kurdish-controlled region in the north.

Obviously wonderful that there’s reconstruction there, moving towards peace there. We can have some of the refugees go back. My concern then is what happens with this large swath in the east, where you have a lot of disaffected and disenfranchised Sunnis who are going to be living there. And that simply is going to reset the stage for ISIS 2.0, where we end up doing this whole thing all over again in a couple of years. If that ends up happening, we’re going to continue to need the cooperation of the Turks in some capacity to deal with emerging counter-terrorism challenges coming out of Syria and the region, because I think this is going to be a long-term problem.

So for me, this question of what the strategy looks like ultimately is going to be shaped in part by what the U.S. decides to do in terms of a longer-term security presence. And then also, of course, you’ve got other actors that has a vested interest on the ground, particularly Russia and Iran. And frankly, they have a lot more skin in the game because they’re much more heavily invested militarily than we are. And so anything is going to have to be significantly shaped by political, diplomatic, and ultimately military decisions made with them.


BARKEY: It’s a mess. Look, I don’t think there are any easy solutions. And I don’t think that the U.S. will be able to pull out anytime soon from northern Syrian, President Trump notwithstanding. I mean, look, if you want Trump to stay, all you have to do is get Obama to say it’s time to get out, and he’ll do the exact opposite. (Laughter.) But jokes aside, the fact of the matter is that you have a very critical situation in the sense that not only do you have an ISIS threat, but you also have the problem of the Iranians and the Russians and the Syrians taking—retaking the region and having a much bigger fight.

But beyond that, I think when you look at what’s going on, yesterday Erdogan made this bombastic announcement saying the Kurdish question in Turkey has been resolved. There is no more Kurdish problem in Turkey. But if you believe that, you know, I have a whole bunch of things to sell you. But the point is that, I think this crisis in Turkey is going to escalate. Erdogan is having enormous difficulties at home in terms of getting reelected. He will probably get reelected, by hook or by crook, but he may lose control of parliament. It all depends on whether or not the Kurdish political party manages to get into—past the 10 percent threshold. And he’s doing everything in his power to undermine that.

But the Turks are in a very bizarre situation at the moment. We’re forgetting that the Turks are deeply involved in Syria in two different—three different ways. With the United States, obviously, the stuff we’ve been talking about. In the province of Idlib, there’s—the Turks have troops down there and they have 12 observation posts as part of the Astana process. But that’s a very, very fragile situation in which a move by the Syrian military—which the Syrian military wants to do, Astana notwithstanding, to take back Idlib, to get back the highway to Damascus, Aleppo Highway, which is at the moment blocked by the opposition. So you are going to have conflict there. And the Turks are going to be involved there.

Then there is the question of Afrin. The Turks moved into Afrin, kicked out the Kurds there, and in the process kicked out 140,000 people. And in there, they also created a situation where very soon, I suspect, we will see attacks on pro-Turkish forces and Turks there. So the Turks are getting militarily involved in Syria. And by the way, the Turkish military is also trying to move in Iraq at the moment against the PKK-controlled mountains, the Qandil Mountains where their bases are. There’s been large numbers of troops being pushed into Iraq. So the Turks are gambling a great deal. And if those blows back, and it blows back badly, we are going to have a very serious problem with the Turkish government, because the Turkish government ultimately will find the United States responsible for everything that goes wrong.

At the moment, you know, yes, Cavusoglu comes here, you have these wonderful pictures taken. But in fact, when you look at the rhetoric in Turkey today by the government, it’s continuously anti-American and blaming United States for just about everything. And that has to do, essentially, with the precarious situation Erdogan finds himself, especially since the Syrian crisis started. So when you think about Syria, and you have to include Iraq, you also have to include the official relations with Turkey. They’re not going to be resolved that easily, in part because of domestic dynamics, in part because, as I said, the Turks are so heavily involved in both Syria and Iraq militarily and they will have to fight themselves—fight themselves out of that situation.

And frankly, the other—you know, the other big issue here is Iran. To the extent that United States has wanted to reduce and limit Iran’s influence in the region, allowing for the—eastern Syria to fall, essentially, into Syrian regime hands, essentially means that you have the famous Tehran to Damascus highway being established. So there’s a way of—I’m not saying that this is an anti—the operation in eastern Syria is an anti-Iran operation, but it is a way of essentially signaling and influencing Iranian behavior. And so, yes, Trump wants to get out, but he also wants to put the pressure on Iran. You can’t have them—you can’t—you can’t chew gum and walk at the same time.

OLLIVANT: I was going to ask that as a question but we’re just about out of time, so I’ll just make an observation—which I would ask no other members to do—(laughter)—that we do seem to have here this contradiction kind of personified in the president, this deep isolationism, especially with respect to the Middle East, this impulse to disengage, which I think is certainly much broader in the United States than just the president’s base. That’s a very broadly held sentiment. But at the same time, this bellicosity towards both ISIS and the Iranians, which I think is also a fairly widely held, popular sentiment. And here in Syria, we have those two in very, very deep tension and I’m not sure what we do with that.

At this, we will go to questions with the members. Again, a reminder, this meeting is on the record. So gauge your question accordingly. If you wish to speak, raise your hand. I’ll recognize you. Once you’re recognized, please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, stand, state your name and relevant affiliation. Please limit yourself to one question. Please make it both one and a question. And keep it concise. A short preamble is OK, a long statement—like I just made—is not. So with that, I will turn it over to the membership. What are our questions?

Mona, in the back.

Q: Thanks. Mona Yacoubian, U.S. Institute of Peace.

 Could the panel talk a little bit more about Manbij and the recently announced deal? What are the details of the deal? What are the potential SNAFUs? And where will it take us?

OLLIVANT: Anyone you want to direct that to in particular, Mona? Max, let’s start with you.

HOFFMAN: OK. I think that we were all back in the green room trying to figure that out ourselves. (Laughter.) You know, the hope for a deal that, frankly, placates Turkey around Manbij has been there for some time. Tillerson was pursuing this before he got canned. And the two crucial issues were force protection—so the idea was joint patrols, joint security, stewardship of Manbij, between Turkish and U.S., both direct forces and their proxies. The issue on that front has been force protection, which is the reason the U.S. wasn’t willing to participate, for example, in the Euphrates Shield operation, which was the Turkish operation to push ISIS out of Jarabulus, was that the U.S. couldn’t guarantee that if it put its special forces with Turkish proxies in that are, the Turkish proxies wouldn’t shoot at them. So that issue remains. And that is reflective of Turkey’s support for and cooperation with some pretty dubious groups in Syria.

The second issue is, OK, once you’ve taken care of basic security, joint patrols, however you work out that very difficult question, what about the government—you know, the actual governance of that area. There is the Manbij Military Council, you know, which was set up—Gayle can speak to this much more effectively than I can—but set up. It was—it was—it did have YPG participation. They had, after all, reconquered the city from ISIS. It also had locals. Many—predominantly Manbij local people in—coming together to try and govern the city. Turkey wants—it is, however, predominantly an Arab city. And Turkey and its proxies want some measure of control. So the issue there is jointly vetted lists that both the U.S. and Turkey can agree on.

You know, I don’t see this implementation happening quickly. I think it will have to be a slow process. And there are huge risks involved, because—not just that they can’t agree on lists or on governance, but also that once they’re there and these joint patrols are taking place, all it takes is one person picking up an AK-47 or a grenade for the whole thing to unravel, because there’s so much pent-up hostility and so much bloodshed in the past, so.

SLOAT: I just—I’d add a couple things. Like I had mentioned in my opening, I mean, the U.S. government had promised Turkey repeatedly in 2015 and in 2016 that the YPG were not going to cross west of the Euphrates. And I think they got Erdogan to grit his teeth with the idea of the YPG as part of the SDF leading the attack on Manbij. And then the idea was that they were supposed to retreat. I don’t actually know why they didn’t retreat. And to Henri’s point, if CENTCOM was telling them to stay that certainly was not in keeping with what U.S. policy was, and certainly not in keeping with what Vice President Biden announced publicly and told the Turks when he was there in 2016.

And I think it really gets at what a lot of Turkey’s concerns had been initially, that you had all of these predominantly Arab cities, with Manbij and Raqqa and other places. Raqqa was another one of those places that there was questions about whether the YPG were even going to be willing to engage there, because it was outside their initial area of interest. I think a lot of the conversation about having some sort of Manbij agreement happened when Tillerson was out in Turkey in March. And I think a lot of the initial framework of this agreement was discussed at that point. It was then delegated to these interagency working groups that were set up. And you might recall that the Turkish foreign minister was expected to visit Turkey—or, to visit Washington several weeks after that to finalize the agreement. But then, when Tillerson was removed, the process died away.

So there’s been continued engagement within the context of this working group with senior officials from the State Department and the Defense Department engaging with Turkey. I think later this week you’ll have the Turkish defense minister seeing Secretary Mattis on the margins of the defense ministerial. And then we have the NATO summit coming up in July, where presumably there will be some sort of interaction between Trump and Erdogan on this. I think, frankly, a lot of the details have been thin, because a lot of the details are going to have to be worked out. I think the Defense Department has indicated that there is going to be mil-to-mil planning that’s going to be happening in the coming weeks to take some of this forward.

There was a briefing that the State Department had done for journalists this morning, talking about a lot of this as a phased approach, and that you’re going to be able to move onto the next phase until the previous phase is completed. So I think it’s possible in the near term we’ll see the potential for joint patrols between the U.S. and Turks along the demarcation line there. That’s something that’s quite quick and easy to get set up. But as Max said, I think you’re going to end up seeing more problems implementing these questions about governance and security arrangements. You know, I think, as we’ve seen from earlier conversations between Americans and Turks, you know, who’s a terrorist and what your definition of vetting criteria is tends to differ pretty significantly between the two sides. So I think the implementation of some of that is at risk.

Some of the indications coming out of some of the briefings this morning were that the Manbij Military Council could actually remain in place. And so I think the challenge for the United States is going to be how you’re going to be preserving some of the stability that Gayle was talking about with trying to assuage some of these Turkish concerns about composition of both the governance arrangements and also the security side. So I think it’s going to be a long, protracted process. And my concern is that there’s plenty of places along the way where this could end up falling apart.

BARKEY: Oh, just quickly, two points. First of all, I think the Manbij issue was important to Erdogan for the elections. In a way, United States gave him a gift. So this is one thing he wanted. He finally got it. As I said earlier, I think it never made sense for the YPG not to pull out of Manbij earlier. They had no interest. I mean, they had an interest for a little while, but in terms of connecting further west. But if you look at Foreign Minister Cavusoglu’s comments after the meeting yesterday, he basically is saying that, well, now we’ve gotten Manbij. And then we’re going to go, and we’re going to go further east. But that, I don’t think, is part of the deal.

And secondly, it essentially highlights the fundamental problem that exists here. The fundamental problem was never Manbij. The fundamental problem is what is going to happen to the Syrian Kurds, right? As it constituted now, the Turks would find it unacceptable to have any kind of Kurdish-controlled area east—not just west—but east of the Euphrates. In that case, are we going to have problems down the road? The initial stage is not that difficult to achieve, but as both Amanda and Max said this is an ongoing process and there will be problems down the road.


LEMMON: Yes. I mean, there’s a saying in Spanish: From the word to the deed, much is lost. And I think this case, we will see how much is lost when there’s actually a great deal to be gained if a deal is achieved. What is fascinating is people on the ground—Kurds and Arabs, but mostly Kurds—were talking about how they were hopeful that a deal would be reached, in part because they—in their view, it would give Turkey no excuse to attack Manbij, if there were no YPG presence. And so it would give some space and let the Manbij Military Council run the city, and then you would have less of a threat. And then the excuse for attacking Manbij because of YPG would be gone.

And I think, you know, Amanda and Max were talking about this, as was Henri, there are significant places in which this could go wrong along the way. But there are also possibilities if this were to work, where the green shoots that you see now in terms of stability could be built upon. And it was interesting, being in Manbij, I had been in interviews talking about SDF previously. And people said, no, no, it’s not SDF it’s MMC. So there was already very significant amount of making clear to outsiders that this was MMC in the city.

And one thing was interesting. I interviewed a 19-year-old and an 18-year-old young woman—young women who had joined MMC. They were recruits. And I asked them why they joined. And they said—one said, because when she wanted to go back to school and her father wouldn’t let her after ISIS was there for three years in Manbij, and she wanted to go back to school afterward and couldn’t, that she was really motivated by these—by the women that she saw who were part of the fighting force to retake Manbij. And the second young woman said the same thing, that when we saw these women take Manbij, you know, liberate us from ISIS in 2016, it really stayed with us. And we really want to be part of protecting our city.

And it’s going to be fascinating to see how what is happening now intersects with the reality on the ground, with what Turkey will want and need, with what the Americans are willing to provide, and with what the Kurds are able to live with on the ground. And I think that triangulation of those three will determine the future.


Q: Puneet Talwar, for Amanda and Henri.

In your view, Henri you sort of got to this so maybe Amanda you can address it, the U.S. presence, how effective is it really as a form of leverage against Iran in eastern Syria? And then for both of you, what will it take to get back to the pre-2012 Turkey-PKK peace process?

BARKEY: You were said first. (Laughter.)

SLOAT: It’s a good question. I mean, I think having an American presence on the ground there gives us skin in the game. And I think by being there, it allows—or, it provides a certain deterrent presence simply because we are physically there on the ground. And I think to the extent that we want to have leverage in some of the peace negotiations, having some skin on the ground is useful. Depending on how people are interpreting this idea of pushing back on Iranian influence in the country, that’s where I end up getting a little bit more skeptical.

So I see influence in terms of skin in the game in peace talks and a deterrence presence by being there. But in terms of being able to do anything more offensive beyond simply holding territory and providing cover to those who are there holding territory, I end up being a bit more skeptical. I mean, I don’t think Trump, or anybody, necessarily wants to have U.S. forces in a combat-oriented mission on the ground. And I don’t think 2,000 special forces are necessarily going to be a significantly sized force to be able to do some of that.

And then, like I said, there’s also a question of whether or not we’re envisioning just continuing to provide air support to the YPG and to continue to use them as a proxy force on the ground to keep fighting against the Iranians, which it’s my sense that now that ISIS has been pushed out and they’ve achieved some of their political objective of controlling territory on the ground, that they’re not necessarily going to be looking for continued military conflict either.

BARKEY: Look, when you have essentially part of Syrian territory under control of a combination of American and, shall we say, Kurdish forces, you’re basically creating a diversion for both the regime in Syria and its Iranian overlords, in that it is—it is a problem for them. They have to be able—they have to contend with it. It will be tracked. It will take energy away from other things. So it’s not—this is not an Iran regime change policy. It is just a way of essentially telling the Iranians: We are here. We can make your life a little bit difficult.

Going back to the peace process, the pre—shall we say—2014, 2015 peace process, I thought for a while that maybe if Erdogan were to close into a victory in the upcoming elections that he would be magnanimous and go back. But increasingly there are two things that I’m noticing. One is that he is becoming increasingly erratic. He’s this formidable, formidable politician. I mean, I used to think that he didn’t have a brain, he had a supercomputer, because he could keep track of so many different things at the same time. He’s losing it. And he’s losing it in the sense that you see the choice that the opposition did, by putting forward this new face as the main opposition candidate, has flung his game off. And he’s making mistakes. And so he’s becoming far more defensive. And he was always a vengeful person, but he’s taking it to further and further extreme conditions.

So I don’t see him becoming magnanimous in the aftermath of the elections, even if he were to win in the second round of the presidency, which I expect he will. So I think it—the important thing that happened in the peace process, though, is that the Turkish state did engage the PKK and its leadership directly. So that threshold has been crossed. You can’t say, oh, I don’t talk to terrorists. Yeah, well, you talk to terrorists. And you made deals with them. And you actually implemented those deals. So that fig leaf is no longer there. But I think it will take—after the elections, I think it will take a great deal of unrest, maybe violence, but certainly political organization by the Kurds to push the Turkish government into a peace process. If the opposition were to win, then we are in a different ball game.

OLLIVANT: Right here. Wait for the mic, please.

Q: Nick Dowling, IDS International.

Wonder if someone on the panel wants to address the Russian game in Syria. What’s their long-term objective? How tightly bound to Assad they’re going to be? To what degree they’re interested in dividing Turkey from the West? And other interests there.

OLLIVANT: Who wants to take that?

SLOAT: I don’t know. Gayle was smiling, so I’m curious what she’s thinking.

LEMMON: (Laughs.) I’m only smiling because this is a question that is—as I’m sure all of our panelists will say—at the center of so much of the question about what’s happening. I mean, it was interesting when you look at General Votel’s testimony, really calling Russia both arsonist and firefighter. I think there is a view that they are playing every side of this game and playing it fairly well. The question is how overextended they may be, and how durable or not their relationship with Iran is. You know, they were allies of happenstance in the sense that they both were on the side for their own reasons of making sure that this regime went nowhere, that the farthest that Assad went was, you know, a daytrip to Tehran or to Moscow. Certainly, wasn’t going to be leaving power anytime soon.

And they are invested. There are all kinds of tarot card reading and conversations in Washington about how committed they are to Assad himself, versus to keeping those around him in power. But there has been very little sign that they’ve done much to separate actually from their previous policy, which is to be 100 percent all in the entire time. And I think the campaign in Aleppo, and their willingness to do whatever was required, was kind of the start of seeing what that entailed. They would like to control the endgame and who sits where, and the where where they actually sit, whether it’s in Astana or Geneva. And they are having a little bit of a tug-of-war, you see, with the U.N. as to who controls the peace process, whenever that peace process comes in Syria.

But they have, to date, been willing to do anything and everything required to keep the regime in power for their own purposes. And the question now is can the U.S. exert more leverage. And actually, I would be very keen to hear what the other panelists think, because the U.S. itself has felt like it was—you know, we talked to people working on what was the outlines of a policy, although, you know, not an actual policy, when it comes to Syria. And there has been enormous frustration about Russia really being able to play every side and every hand. And the one thing that was interesting from my last trip was Syrian Kurds being much more—being very disappointed publicly about the relationship with Russia, in part because they let the airspace open, in their view, and the Kurds be attacked in Afrin.

SLOAT: I would—I mean, I agree with what Gayle said. I would just add a couple things. I mean, one, it’s never been my sense that Putin is particularly invested in Assad personally. I think it was more the principle of not wanting the U.S. and other Western-backed powers to overthrow a leader, especially after having seen that happen in Libya and other places. And obviously a concern that that could end up getting—that could end up creeping back home. So there seemed to be the larger principle at play there initially. Second, I think it was a really good way for Russia to show off a lot of its military hardware to potential buyers internationally, by displaying what they were able to do in Syria.

Third, I think there seems to be this belief that now Russia owns the problem. You know, there was initially a lot of speculation that Russia was going to end up getting bogged down, and they could potentially get stuck there the same way that the United States would if they had gotten more heavily invested. And so that translates into some people thinking that, well, now Russia owns the problem and needs to be responsible for reconstruction. And I haven’t seen any indication that Russia plans to pump a whole bunch of money into rebuilding and rehabilitating the country. So I think they are going to be in a little bit of a bind, the same way everybody else is, which is how you actually bring the civil war to a close.

The last thing I want to say, related to the other part of your question, which is that there’s a significant amount of benefit to Russia by driving a wedge between Turkey, the United States, and its other NATO allies. Certainly I think some of their cooperation with the YPG in Syria was helping to facilitate that. I mean, as Gayle said, though, it was quite striking that when the Turks went in and launched Operation Olive Branch against Afrin, it was not U.S.-backed YPG forces who were there. It was Russian-backed YPG forces there. So you had a situation where Russia allowed airspace and gave tacit approval to the Turks to launch military operations against its own Syrian Kurdish forces that it was backing there. But I think Russia also has its own game to play on the ground in Syria, in terms of trying to keep things off-balance between Turkish interests and American interests.

HOFFMAN: I agree entirely. The last point I would add is that Russia—you know, Putin has now presented himself as the kingmaker in the region, or at least one of them. MBZ from the Emirates was just in Moscow. Netanyahu has had, obviously Erdogan and Putin have met repeatedly, Rouhani and Putin. By acting so decisively and so, you know, cruelly—you know, they bombed schools and hospitals and killed thousands of civilians—they have made themselves a force that you have to deal with. And that, I think, was one of Putin’s goals.

I just wanted to briefly return to Puneet’s question. You know, in a way the solution of getting back to the peace process domestically and the solution, you know, to having stability in Manbij and in eastern Syria, vis-à-vis Turkey, is the same. And it’s that Turkey cannot maintain a definition of terrorist—of PKK terrorist—that is so broad that it encompasses everyone from, you know, actual Cemil Bayik the head of the PKK, to a Syrian who has never—who picked up arms, joined the YPG, and has never fought anyone but ISIS, to, you know, a PKK trainee who came to fight ISIS, to Selahhattin Demirtas, the HDP political leader sitting in prison, to, you know, Pastor Brunson, sitting in prison in western Turkey, who’s also accused of helping the PKK.

Their definition of PKK terrorist and of terrorist writ large is so broad that it encompasses people on the panel, right? They have no credibility and it’s reached a level of absurdity that I don’t think the United States should contort itself to fully accommodate that stance. Turkey has to change that position itself if it wants lasting stability, not just in Syria but within Turkey.

OLLIVANT: Questions? Yes.

Q: Thank you. Jeremy Young with Al Jazeera.

Amanda, I wanted to see if you could elaborate on one of your points, which is that the U.S. government hasn’t been able to establish a coherent Syrian policy over the last 10 years, or ever since the conflict began perhaps. I mean, I find that to be really astonishing in some ways. And I’m wondering if you can help identify whether there’s institutions or individuals that you hold responsible for that failure, or whether you see that as a failure in general.

SLOAT: I think it’s mostly because Syria is simply a wicked hard policy problem. I spent five years in the Obama administration, and there was no issue that was more discussed at great length than Syria. And certainly, the last three years of my time in the State Department, I was in Syria meetings almost every single day. And there were plenty of other meetings happening at different levels within government. So I certainly don’t say that as a criticism of people’s failure to recognize that it was a significant and serious problem.

There was a couple of challenges. One, I think it was a lot easier to have a strategy on Iraq because we actually had a democratically elected, more or less functional government in Iraq that we could partner with. And so the U.S. was able to maintain a military presence in Iraq at the request or the agreement of the Iraqi government. We had Iraqi security forces on the ground that we could partner with in terms of the fight against ISIS. So there was a legal basis and there was a partnership basis that enabled us to be in Iraq.

In Syria, that was a lot more complicated, certainly something that President Obama struggled with, especially when it came to questions of, you know, launching retaliatory strikes after CW use, any sort of American military engagement there, was questions of what the legal basis was. We certainly were not operating there at the request of the Syrian government. The Syrian government didn’t want us there. And it was very much President Obama’s perspective that this was a civil war.

And so leaving aside this idea of Assad must go—which I think was sort of said in the euphoria of the Arab Spring and Libya and everything else—he certainly was not interested in getting involved in the Syrian civil war. And frankly, it’s not clear to me that President Trump would take any different of a position. I think notwithstanding people’s unhappiness at the humanitarian situation in Syria, there’s a lot of fatigue in this country about American military activities in the Middle East.

So it was only really when ISIS became an issue, which was then seen as a security threat to the United States, to the homeland as well as to European and other regional partners, that the United States ended up getting involved. But then, within the administration, you would end up having splits between camps of people that thought you needed to address the Syrian domestic civil war situation as a means of dealing with the ISIS problem. There were people that argued that you were never going to have long and lasting peace in Syria, as long as Assad and his regime was in power, especially given the civil war, his lack of legitimacy within his people, et cetera. Then there was another camp of people that thought still that the Syrian civil war was something that was separate from us, and that we needed to focus primarily on this counter-ISIS campaign.

What really ended up happening in Syria, in my perspective, is that we ended up viewing it almost exclusively through a military and a counterterrorism lens. And I think if you view ISIS as a counterterrorism threat, then you start looking at military solutions. And it was in that context that partnering with the YPG as a fighting force on the ground made sense. You know, you’re looking for an effective military partner to help you deal with a military and a counterterrorism threat. The problem was that there’s obviously a lot of second and third-order effects that come from partnering with the YPG. There’s all of the impacts that we’ve been talking about on Turkey, which is a NATO ally, both in terms of their own perceptions of their security—since we were working with an organization that was allied, if not directly linked to an organization that we and others have designated as a terrorist organization that has killed thousands of people there.

And you could also argue that there’s implications for the people on the ground in Syria. Essentially, one of the things that has come out of our cooperation with the YPG is we have shifted the demographic composition on the ground in Syria, that there is now this large majority Kurdish-run territory in northern Syria that was not necessarily there before, with Kurds running what had previously been run Arab-run cities. So, again, if you’re looking at this as a CT problem, that may not necessarily be so much of an issue. If you are where we are now, which is how do we end this civil war, how do we somehow start rehabilitating the country of Syria, how do we create the conditions for refugees to be able to return, that’s where all of this becomes much more problematic. And having an exclusively military focus on this tends to eliminate a lot of the diplomatic and the humanitarian and the development considerations that also need to be part of a much more holistic solution to Syria.

OLLIVANT: Great. We’re almost out of time, so I’ll make this our last question, as the other three panelists to weigh in for about 45 seconds each. I’m going to be very, very quick. Anything to add on this, Gayle?

LEMMON: Yeah. Yes, two quick points. One is, I do think it’s important that while this began as a Kurdish project, I will say when you are in places like Raqqa or in the Raqqa civil council building, or going through checkpoints all through, you do only see Arabs. And I do think you hear a lot of discussion about making sure that there is more Arab representation. I think this is an issue that the folks who are leading in the civil councils in Manbij, the civil council in Raqqa are very aware of and very much focused on. And so I do think that is definitely not—you don’t want in the police building in Raqqa and hear Kurdish. You only hear Arabic. And talking to folks, most of them—we had no appointment, so I can say they weren’t ready for us—were from Raqqa. But I think all of those issues are very much in play.

And it was interesting, when you would talk to people in 2013 or 2014 for pieces I would be writing, columns about Syria, the thing that folks in the Obama administration said was, you know, they all cared about Syria. But they all came from the different vantage points that Amanda mentioned. And one senior official said to me: The problem is not that the president gets to a decision that we disagree with. The problem is that no decision is reached, and it is tabled until the next time. And so I think you see the Trump administration really inheriting a policy-free zone and trying to figure out some of the decisions that were teed up already, which included arming the Kurds directly, which was a decision that was long in discussion at the end of the Obama administration.

And I guess the last point I’d say is this is not simply a military question. And actually, talking to military folks from the U.S. side, they are the first ones to say: We want more State Department presence here. It is important that this is not a military-only campaign. And there the challenge—and I think when you have a counterterrorism focus—the challenge is, who does the military get to hand off to when an area is stable? And there has never been a military leader I’ve interviewed who thought that you could kill your way to the end of any of these conflicts. And I do think—

OLLIVANT: Gayle, I’m going to cut you there. We’re almost out of time. I want to give each of these about 30 seconds each. Max?

HOFFMAN: On which part, sorry?

OLLIVANT: Close out. Your 30 seconds. Close out.

HOFFMAN: Close out? I mean, I was—I was listening to Gayle with great interest. It does strike me that the people closest to the dynamics on the ground tend to be the most optimistic. And I don’t know if that’s sort of, you know, captured by the excitement of local civilian populations trying to carve out a better life in horrific circumstances or not. But I do think this is a—you know, it’s highly uncertainly. It’s a thorny path forward, but there is a chance for the United States to help a third of this country piece its life back together at fairly minimal cost. And I think it’s worth it. And I think it aligns with U.S. strategic interest.


BARKEY: I also appreciated Gayle’s comments regarding the people on the ground. Let me just say two things about the policy. Look, policies are not always made in a very sophisticated manner where you know here you start and you know where you’re going to end up. You improvise. The United States under Obama was really an accidental tourist when it came to Syria, did not want to get involved, as Amanda also mentioned. But it got involved. But this is not just a CT operation. And I think to look at what’s happening in eastern Syria as just a CT operation is wrong.

First of all, every single government in the region, the Turks and the Americans at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, made a terrible mistake. They said, in six months Assad will be gone. And did not understand that this regime was going to be there for a long time and it was going to fight to the last Syrian—the last Syrian other than Assad, of course. And so that was—that was the first policy mistake. At this stage, I don’t see how you can turn the clock around and say, oh, we’re going to do something about the political solution, when the conditions are not ready yet.

And my final point is about—a little bit about the Kurds. We tend to—we tend to forget that the Kurds are part of the region, have been there for thousands of years, and have gotten a very raw deal. You’re forgetting what the Syrian regime did to the Kurds over the years. Overnight they eliminated their citizenship, which meant you couldn’t send your kids to school, you couldn’t go to hospitals, you couldn’t—I mean, there is a reason why these people are rebelling. And so to just say, oh, the PKK are YPG and therefore we should not support them I think misses the point. There is a political problem there that you need to address one way or the other. Maybe it’s not America’s role to address that, but in the end if Syria’s going to stay Syria—and I’m not saying it’s going to be divided—you will have to address that problem. And you won’t be able to move forward without it.

OLLIVANT: We’ll end there. Thank you very much for attending. Thanks to our panelists, to Gayle in Los Angeles, and to all the members. (Applause.)

LEMMON: Thank you, Doug.

OLLIVANT: Thank you, Gayle.


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