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The Myth of Risk-Free Warfare: Lessons From Syria

Words: Abigail Watson

Since President Donald Trump announced: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency,” his advisers have been looking at ways to stay. Less than a month after this tweet, John Bolton set out two criteria that must be met before a withdrawal: (1) the so-called Islamic State (IS) are truly defeated and (2) the US can guarantee Turkey won’t strike the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

This speaks to a key problem with the approach the US and others have taken during the anti-IS campaigns: attempting to tackle terrorist groups by supporting local militia may seem risk-free in the short-term but is likely to create more instability and violence in the long-term. Importantly, for many of the groups the US has supported, IS was never the primary concern and “their gaze was fixed on the wars after the war against the Islamic State.” Thus, in supporting them the US has arguably changed the balance of power on the ground and stoked more competition and conflict.  

Thus, in supporting them the US has arguably changed the balance of power on the ground and stoked more competition and conflict.

Take the Syrian Democratic Forces. While the group has a notable number of Arab recruits, it is largely controlled by the Kurdish-dominated YPG (the People’s Protection Units). When IS moved to take Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, international support helped the YPG to retake the city and, eventually, move beyond its areas of interest to retake other non-Kurdish areas from IS. The SDF was one of the most militarily able groups on the ground and shared the short-term goal of defeating IS, greatly diminishing the group in the country. However, as a Kurdish-dominated group, IS was never the primary concern for the SDF. Now that the threat posed by IS has ebbed, the other concerns have come to the fore.

The first of these is Turkey, which has long called US support to the SDF unacceptable because it considers the SDF to be affiliated with the Kurdish Workers Party’s (PKK), a militant group leading an armed insurgency against Turkey. The US Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, is now trying to broker a deal between Turkey and the SDF but seems to be getting no closer. In fact, there have been a number of assassination attempts against SDF officials. Brett McGurk, former Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS, has predicted that as soon as the US leaves, Turkey will attempt to invade, SDF will fragment and a power vacuum will open – leaving space for groups like IS to re-emerge.

The second concern is Arab-majority areas which the SDF took from IS. Here, they have struggled to gain local legitimacy. They have continued to struggle “to achieve Arab buy-in to its project” and “reported violations committed by some Kurdish groups against Arab communities, have led to ethnic tensions between local communities.” In recent weeks, residents in Deir Ez-Zor province, in eastern Syria, have been protesting the SDF. Protesters have been accusing the SDF of selling oil to the regime to enrich their own forces, without giving anything to the local population. One protestor said: “We are deprived of everything.” These protests turned violent when protestors intercepted a convoy from a nearby oil field. With US withdrawing more support from the SDF, the group is concerned about how long it can control these areas.

Providing military assistance to a domestic opposition group can allow states like the US to tackle threats abroad “without the human, material, and political costs of committing large numbers of troops to combat.” However, it is not a “risk-free” approach, as the case in Syria shows. The US must be mindful of the many dangers such an approach can hold for long term peace and stability – else it risks perpetuating violence in the places it intervenes.

Abigail Watson is a Senior Research Officer at the Oxford Research Group. She researches, writes and presents on the political, military and legal implications of working with local, national and regional partners to address groups like ISIS, al-Shabab and Boko Haram.

Abigail Watson

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