A political tug-of-war over a proposed "safe zone" in northern Syria is underway in Washington. Critics of U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw American forces from the conflict zone are working hard to stop the administration from working with Turkey in the future. Syria experts at various Washington think tanks challenge the Turkish view in order to persuade the United States to keep protecting the People's Protection Units (YPG) militia – which is part of the PKK terrorist organization.
Senior Pentagon officials share that view and are attempting to transform Trump's safe zone, which was intended to address Turkey's national security concerns, into a buffer zone designed to shelter YPG militants from Turkish retaliation. Nowadays, the U.S. military leadership is lobbying for three options: To surrender the YPG-controlled territory to Russia and the Assad regime, to let Arab fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take charge, and to hand it over to a joint European force.
The U.S. State Department, by contrast, supports the plan to cooperate with Turkey. Yet accommodating the Turkish request to combat terrorists and protecting the YPG militants simultaneously is a serious challenge. At the heart of that challenge lays Washington's misguided approach to fight against Daesh. In recent years, the United States empowered a terrorist group, the YPG, to defeat another. It is now looking for a way to protect its proxy. To make matters worse, U.S. officials are mulling over the possibility of securing some kind of legal status for the YPG militia. That Trump received a representative of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Washington suggests that he too is confused. The Americans do not need to commission a study to understand how they create serious problems by trying to find easy ways out of difficult situations. All they'd have to do is to read their own reports and a large number of books that former U.S. officials published after leaving office. In a recent report on the Iraq War, the U.S. Army conceded that Washington's misguided policy empowered Iran. That accurate analysis, however, did not lead Washington to an accurate conclusion. The problem, the military claimed, was that the Obama administration was committed to democracy promotion in Iraq, whereas democracy did not always lead to stability.
Washington tends to repeat the mistake of failing to understand the balance of power in the countries and region, which set the stage for U.S. military interventions, without worrying about the problems that its arrogance tends to cause in the long run. The exclusion of Sunni Arabs, which the U.S. tolerated to dismantle the Baath regime in Iraq, had nothing to do with democracy. Instead, that decision pushed the Sunni community to radical groups including al-Qaida and Daesh.
It is no secret that Washington's flawed approach won't produce workable solutions. In Afghanistan, where the Americans made the same exact mistake, the Taliban is set to claim the driver's seat under a negotiated settlement with the United States. Let us hope that the relevant government agency will publish a report claiming that democracy promotion in Afghanistan was a mistake.
With the U.S. withdrawal from Syria around the corner, America's foreign policy elite is about to make their next big mistake. To be clear, the current debate isn't about Trump's decision to leave the conflict zone at all. Instead, it relates to the nature of the retreat. It is still possible for the United States to pull out of the battlefield by repairing its strained relations with Turkey and making a meaningful contribution to Syria's future. The only way to accomplish that goal is to cooperate with the Turks.
In the absence of an agreement with Turkey, a hasty U.S. withdrawal from Syria won't solve any problems. Nor can Washington get anywhere by exploring other options that seek to exclude Ankara, as such moves will play into the hands of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. To make matters worse, going down that path will rule out the reversal of the damage that the Syrian crisis inflicted on Turkey-U.S. relations.
Make no mistake: One way or another, Turkey will find middle ground with Russia and Iran. Yet the Turks will consider the United States a hostile power if it packs its bags and goes home after it armed the PKK's Syrian affiliate and created a buffer zone to protect terrorists.