The Obama administration, having rejected the safe zone and other policies that could have helped moderates, seems intent on aggravating instability by supporting the YPG
For American policy-makers, the ability to openly talk about their mistakes in the international arena is a huge convenience. As the world's only superpower, the United States can avoid paying the price for doing irreparable harm to places like Iraq. Over the years, foreign policy experts in Washington, D.C. published a number of books to reflect on their mistakes in Iraq, which the U.S. invaded to find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction that weren't. The Arabs have a saying that points out the futility of talking about mistakes after the harm is done: Ba'da kharab al-Basra – what's the point after Basra is destroyed?
Since U.S. President Barack Obama will not be moving out of the White House for a few more months, the American foreign policy establishment has not started confessing what went wrong in Syria. Actually, the SETA Foundation's Kılıç Buğra Kanat recently published "A Tale of Four Augusts," the first major analysis of the Obama administration's Syria policy since 2011.
Attending the SETA Foundation's annual conference in Washington last week, I have not come across any fans of Mr. Obama's Syria policy. Most foreign policy experts remain critical of Washington's tactical alliance with the People's Protection Units (YPG), the PKK's Syrian franchise, and the administration's failure to support the moderate rebels. In retrospect, Mr. Obama's biggest mistake was to deny the moderates an opportunity to create and enforce a safe zone in northern Syria. Having failed to heed Turkey's warnings in Iraq, the US. scrapped the safe zone proposal – the only viable plan. At this point, Republicans and Democrats alike agree that Mr. Obama's Syria policy has been a disaster. Finally, former Secretary of State James Baker described his country's unwillingness to back Turkey's safe zone proposal, which he said could have stopped DAESH and fixed Syria, as "a very bad decision."
Sadly enough, President Obama's bad decisions not only turned the Syrian civil war into a complete mess but also created a transnational terrorist organization that calls itself DAESH. To make matters worse, the Obama administration poisoned Washington's relationship with Turkey, a key NATO ally, by openly supporting the PKK's Syrian franchise.
Nowadays, Turkey and the U.S. are trying to settle on a road map to force DAESH out of the Manbij-Mare stretch. Despite Turkey's concerns, the Obama administration prefers working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, including the YPG, instead of the Free Syrian Army. With the 2016 presidential election fast approaching, foreign policy experts who understand that the Pentagon's opportunistic reliance on the YPG places Syria's future at risk cannot get through to the public. If anything, experts are starting to believe that the American people have no interest in dealing with pressing problems in the Middle East and Arab countries.
At this point, both Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, agree that the U.S. should let regional players deal with problems around the world. In other words, the foreign policy establishment is adopting President Obama's once-controversial view that "free riders" must carry their weight – which means that U.S. allies around the world are starting to realize that they are alone.
Washington's isolationist turn affects not only the Middle East and the Gulf but also South Asia and Asia-Pacific. Ukraine has to fight Russia alone. Saudi Arabia must compete with Iran by itself. Pakistan does not enjoy U.S. support against the Taliban and India. And Japan feels increasingly vulnerable in the face of Chinese aggressions.
To be clear, the Obama administration has more seriously offended Turkey by assuming a hostile stance against Ankara, which involves working with the PKK-YPG. For the time being, decision-makers in Washington are willing to ignore the fact that U.S. isolationism hurts their credibility around the world and weakens their relations with U.S. allies. Still, the situation in Syria and Iraq will be an extremely serious challenge for the next U.S. president. Needless to say, he or she will have a difficult time trying to clean the mess that George W. Bush and Barack Obama left behind.
Over the next years, Mr. Obama's policy advisers will publish a number of books to tell the American people that they were wrong to ignore Turkey's recommendations in Syria. As the saying goes, ba'da kharab al-Halab – what's the point after Aleppo is destroyed?
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Ibn Haldun University. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.