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Engaging Syria? U.S. Constraints and Opportunities
Engaging Syria? U.S. Constraints and Opportunities
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Calling a Halt to Turkey’s Offensive in North-eastern Syria
Calling a Halt to Turkey’s Offensive in North-eastern Syria
Report 83 / Middle East & North Africa

Engaging Syria? U.S. Constraints and Opportunities

Candidate Obama pledged that his Middle East policy would include re-engagement with Syria; President Obama will find that the past is not easily overcome.

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Executive Summary

Candidate Obama pledged that his Middle East policy would include re-engagement with Syria; President Obama will find that the past is not easily overcome. The reasons behind his vow remain pertinent. Syria holds important cards in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, is Iran’s most important Arab ally and has substantial influence over Hamas and Hizbollah. There are indications of potential common ground on which to build, from resuming Israeli-Syrian negotiations, to consolidating progress in Iraq to blunting the rise of jihadi militancy and sectarianism. But significant obstacles to healthy, mutually beneficial relations remain, along with a legacy of estrangement and distrust. They dictate the need for a prudent approach that seeks first to rebuild ties and restore confidence. It will be critical to reassure Damascus that the U.S. is interested in improving relations and resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict, not in regime change. It is also equally critical not to compromise on core principles such as Lebanon’s sovereignty or the integrity of the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

President Bush’s policy was premised on the belief that isolation and pressure would lead to substantial changes in Syrian behaviour. It failed on both counts. The policy crumbled, and the sought-after behavioural changes never truly materialised. Awareness of this outcome, coupled with Senator Obama’s own conviction that engagement – far from being a sign of weakness – was the mark of diplomatic strength, formed the backdrop to his campaign pledge and is likely to inform his presidential policy. The question no longer is whether to engage Syria but how.

That is where the hard part begins, for engagement is easier said than done. Although the open hostility witnessed under the Bush administration was an anomaly in U.S.-Syrian relations, the ordinary state of affairs hardly has been the reverse. Even prior to the Bush presidency, whether under President Clinton or his predecessors, the relationship had been problematic, marked by disagreement as much as dialogue. From Washington’s perspective, Syria continued to support militant Palestinian and Lebanese groups; from Damascus’s, the U.S. continued to harbour a regional agenda inconsistent with its own aspirations and interests. In short, while breaking with the Bush legacy is part of the solution, simply reverting to what preceded it is not.

Nor, even if it were advisable, would it be possible to rewind the tape. The last eight years have left their imprint in several, at times indelible ways. The legacy is threefold. First is the web of legal or administrative measures aimed at Syria. These include an array of binding UN Security Council resolutions related to Damascus’s role in Lebanon, the establishment of the international tribunal regarding the Hariri assassination and an assortment of U.S. economic sanctions. They undoubtedly will continue to shape U.S.-Syrian relations; for the most part, their relaxation will occur, if at all, as a by-product of improved relations rather than as a means of achieving them.

Secondly, U.S. policy has deepened estrangement between the two countries. As Washington recalled its ambassador, downgraded its representation in Damascus and shunned routine encounters with Syrian representatives, Damascus responded by boycotting what remained of the U.S. embassy. Syria has undergone significant change since the U.S. last had sustained interaction. It will take time for policy-makers to come to terms with transformations in the regime’s governance style, power structure, threat perceptions, regional positioning and socio-economic constraints. A policy shift will be all the more difficult to undertake as these years coincided with a hardening of public and congressional attitudes toward Syria that inevitably will influence the new team. Most of the president’s advisers, although in favour of a policy of engagement, bore witness to Syrian action in Iraq and Lebanon, are sceptical about the nature of the regime, question prospects for a genuine shift in its regional posture and sense that Damascus is more likely to move when ignored than when courted.

A third constraint stems from changes in the regional landscape. The Iraq invasion fuelled sectarian tensions and boosted Iran’s influence; neglect and mismanagement of the Arab-Israeli conflict bolstered Palestinian and other rejectionists; Lebanon’s polarisation and the 2006 war enhanced Hizbollah’s influence; attempts to isolate Syria strengthened its ties to Iran; jihadi militancy is on the rise; and the Arab world is as divided as ever. The net result will be to complicate any putative Syrian strategic repositioning.

But there are promising signs, too. For several reasons – most having little or nothing to do with the U.S. – Damascus appears to be softening its posture on Iraq and Lebanon, undertaking at least some effort to control its border with the former while establishing diplomatic relations with the latter. Talks with Israel, although halted due to the war in Gaza and the elections in Israel, might well resume with U.S. participation. Relations with Turkey have become a central element of Syrian foreign policy, offsetting Iran’s exclusive influence and providing Ankara with real leverage. Signs of unease already can be detected in Syrian-Iranian relations; with patience and deft management, they might be substantially transformed.

How the two sides first engage one another will be critical; mistakes, miscalculations or mismatched expectations could do significant damage. In this, the second of three companion reports, Crisis Group examines in greater depth the last eight years’ legacy, drawing lessons for the new administration’s Syria policy. It concludes that, in order to pave the way for a more fruitful relationship, the U.S. early on should take the following steps:

  • Clearly articulate a set of guiding core principles, including:

­– support for and participation in renewed peace negotiations on all tracks;

– consistent with past Israeli-Syrian negotiations, any final agreement should entail full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, firm security arrangements and the establishment of normal, peaceful bilateral relations;

– no arrangement or compromise over the international tribunal or Lebanon’s sovereignty;

– respect for such international norms should not be read as a desire to destabilise or change Syria’s regime; and

– open acknowledgment of positive Syrian measures.

  • Set in place effective channels of communication, by:

– nominating an ambassador;

– requesting that Syria treat U.S. diplomats respectfully and doing likewise with Syrian diplomats posted in the U.S.;

– establishing a privileged, personal and direct channel between President Obama and President Assad, possible through Middle East Peace Envoy George Mitchell; and

– conducting a relatively early visit by a high-level U.S. military official in order to establish U.S.-Syrian-Iraqi security cooperation.

  • Carefully rethink sanctions in line with clear policy objectives, streamline licensing procedures and loosen restrictions on humanitarian or public safety grounds, such as for medical items or civil aviation-related goods to help replace an ageing and dangerous national fleet.

The initial briefing in this series described lessons from the French experience at re-engagement with Syria. The third and final report will consider evolutions on the Syrian side and propose broader policy recommendations for Washington and Damascus.

Damascus/Washington/Brussels, 11 February 2009


Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on 9 October 2019. AFP/Delil Souleiman

Calling a Halt to Turkey’s Offensive in North-eastern Syria

Turkey’s incursion into north-eastern Syria threatens to reduce a region of relative calm to hotly contested terrain: it could meet determined resistance, cause mass displacement and revive ISIS. Washington should urgently press Ankara to stop the offensive before it advances much further.

A surprise announcement from President Donald Trump has once again plunged U.S. Syria policy into chaos and confusion, paving the way for the Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria that Ankara had long threatened and put in motion on 9 October. Even a limited Turkish intervention risks triggering a costly cycle of escalation between the Turkish army and the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), Washington’s Kurdish partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Should hostilities intensify, a broader Turkish advance into densely populated areas could entail significant civilian casualties, displace many of the region’s inhabitants, fuel local insurgency against Turkish forces, and draw the Syrian regime and allied forces, even including Russia, into the fray. In any scenario, opportunities for ISIS to revive and spread its influence will multiply in proportion to the increase in violence and disorder.

The crisis began on 6 October, when President Trump decided, after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that the U.S. would not stand in the way of a Turkish offensive that Erdoğan had announced days earlier (he had made similar announcements numerous times in the past but always received U.S. signals to stand down). Turkish troops had already started moving into position near the Syrian border, primed to cross upon getting the green light from Ankara – and Washington. In a subsequent statement, the White House announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from “immediate” areas, apparently meaning the parts of Syria that the administration expected Turkey to invade. The statement added that Turkey would assume responsibility for ISIS fighters captured in Syria’s north east over the past two years.

The White House’s dramatic shift shocked the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) but also roused an intense bipartisan outcry in Congress and elsewhere in the U.S. political establishment. Amid the growing backlash, Trump threatened in subsequent tweets to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if Ankara were to do anything he considered “off-limits” in Syria. He called the Turkish offensive “a bad idea” but also stated that he would hold Turkey to its commitment to protect civilians and religious minorities, implicitly acceding to the Turkish action. Meanwhile, senior Trump administration officials clarified that the U.S. did not condone a Turkish offensive, had removed only some 50 troops from two positions near the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn (where the Turkish incursion was anticipated to begin), and was undertaking no broader troop withdrawal at this stage. The scope of Turkey’s incursion into the north east therefore remains unclear for now, as does the extent of the U.S. withdrawal. Turkey, however, has told Western officials that it plans to capture the full 30km-deep “safe zone”, along the length of its Syrian border, that it has demanded in talks over the past year. On 9 October, Turkey began bombarding positions along the border with artillery and from the air, and the ministry of defence announced that a ground incursion had begun.

A substantial Turkish incursion could meet with spirited SDF resistance and prompt new waves of refugees to flee to neighbouring Iraq and even into Turkey.

A substantial Turkish incursion could meet with spirited SDF resistance and prompt new waves of refugees to flee to neighbouring Iraq and even into Turkey. Erdoğan’s declared intention to resettle as many as three million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey in the “safe zone” he is seeking, which would effect a fundamental demographic change in the area, can only stiffen local rejection of, and struggle against, the presence of Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters.

A range of Trump administration officials and U.S. military officers fear the consequences of unconditional U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria amid a unilateral Turkish military incursion, no matter its scope. While the specifics of their concerns vary, a common denominator is clear: were the U.S. to abruptly remove a significant part of the deterrent umbrella, military capacity and stabilisation programming that it provides, with fellow members of the International Coalition to Counter ISIS likely to follow suit, north-eastern Syria could sink into a violent multi-party scuffle over territory and resources, widening the openings for an ISIS resurgence.

Already, the security situation is unravelling in areas captured from ISIS in early 2019, to the east and south of Deir al-Zour in the Euphrates River valley, and swathes of eastern Syria are becoming hubs of renewed jihadist insurgency. The SDF’s willingness and ability to keep up counter-insurgency operations in these areas almost certainly are contingent on continued U.S. support, given threats from Turkey and the Syrian regime.

It is also unclear how Turkey would take responsibility for tens of thousands of imprisoned ISIS fighters and families, who are held not by the U.S., as Trump suggested, but by the SDF. The largest camp, which holds some 70,000 family members of fighters, is located in al-Hol, some 80km from the border. Whether an SDF fighting for its survival would be willing or able to perform this task going forward must be in doubt. But it is hard to see how Turkey could take on the role, given how far south of the Syrian border the camp is.

Turkey’s determination to shift the status quo in north-eastern Syria is rooted in strategic and national security concerns.

Turkey’s determination to shift the status quo in north-eastern Syria is rooted in strategic and national security concerns that, rightly or wrongly, it feels Washington has done little to address. Turkey has complained for years that the U.S. chose the YPG and then the YPG-led SDF as its main partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group, inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which since 1984 has waged insurgency in south east Turkey. Over 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state, and Turkey, the U.S. and the EU have designated the PKK a terrorist organisation. The YPG, which has organic links with the PKK in outlook and membership, denies that it maintains operational links to the PKK and states that it has stayed neutral in the fight between the PKK and the Turkish state. For their part, U.S. officials involved in the initial decision to back the YPG say it came only after repeated, and unsuccessful, attempts to partner with Turkey and its preferred Syrian factions against ISIS.

To appease Ankara, the U.S. and Turkey agreed in August 2019 to establish a joint security mechanism in north-eastern Syria. In the following weeks, the YPG pulled its forces out of defined border areas and dismantled its fortifications in the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. U.S. forces escorted the Turkish military on joint patrols and both militaries conducted overflights in Syria to monitor the agreement’s implementation. Turkish officials claim, however, that these steps fell short of Turkey’s objective to see the area cleared of the YPG and become a “safe zone” that would allow the repatriation of Syrian refugees now living in Turkey. Again, they warned of unilateral Turkish action.

A Turkish invasion of northern Syria can only lead to a new war and a new humanitarian crisis.

A Turkish invasion of northern Syria can only lead to a new war and a new humanitarian crisis. In the best-case scenario, the U.S. would now deploy efforts to de-escalate tensions between Turkey and the YPG. Reaching a sustainable military arrangement acceptable to both Turkey and the YPG was difficult even before the latest Turkish attack, as their respective central demands appeared irreconcilable. Ankara was looking to end YPG hegemony over north-eastern Syria, and demanding that Turkish forces or their proxies wield ultimate authority, much as Turkey has done in Aleppo province’s “Euphrates Shield” area and Afrin district in the recent past. For its part, the YPG, which has indicated that it would be prepared to pull out of certain border areas, hinged this concession on the deployment of an international force that could deter a larger Turkish advance, thereby preserving its own control of the north east.

As Turkey proceeds with its assault, a compromise along the lines previously pursued by the U.S. seems increasingly out of reach; whether some additional steps to reassure Ankara would persuade it to limit the scope of its operation is unclear.

The bottom line is that the U.S. should urgently press Turkey to stop its incursion from advancing deeper into the north east. Should that fail, there would only be one avenue the YPG could pursue: a deal with the regime in Damascus, despite the fact that earlier attempts have failed. Such a deal would be hard to reach given the gap between the two sides’ core interests, not to mention that the regime’s record of breaking agreements reached with other opposition groups hardly inspires confidence. But the YPG has few viable alternatives, and might see an interest in this path if Russia proves willing to mediate among them, Ankara and Damascus, with an outcome that could allow for a YPG withdrawal and the return of regime forces to the country’s Turkish border, perhaps alongside Russian military police.

In the past, the U.S. sought to discourage the YPG from going down this road. As long as Washington maintains a residual force in Syria, it likely will continue to strongly oppose any YPG move to reach an agreement with the regime, and in particular to hand back the oil fields currently under its control to Damascus and its Iranian backers. U.S. officials have alluded publicly and privately to the importance of maintaining pressure on the regime by depriving it of the country’s main natural resources: its oil and its wheat, the majority of which are located in the north east. But while in the past the YPG, banking on U.S. protection and support, took that advice to heart, there is little to stop it from relaunching these efforts (albeit from a weaker position) now that Washington’s unreliability has been made clear. Already, the YPG, the regime, Russia and Iran all have made noises to that effect.

The immediate priority for the U.S. should be to declare and reiterate its opposition to a further and deeper Turkish invasion.

Regardless of any longer-term arrangement, the immediate priority for the U.S. should be to declare and reiterate its opposition to a further and deeper Turkish invasion. Military escalation along the lengthy Turkish-Syrian border has already created new waves of displaced persons fleeing the fighting and diverted YPG forces from the Euphrates River valley, where they have been combating ISIS remnants, and from SDF-held detention camps where they hold ISIS fighters and families. If this pattern continues, ISIS seems likely to coalesce and escalate its attacks, not just in unstable regions such as Deir al-Zour, but also in heretofore mostly stable areas such as Raqqa city, where ISIS carried out an attack just before the Turkish offensive got under way.

Turkey should see the costs of a wider assault. When it launched its offensive on 9 October, its shelling struck not only targets in the area of its initial ground incursion (between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn) but also in major population centres along the border east of the Euphrates, such as Qamishli. This is alarming; if Turkey attempts to seize such a broad swathe of territory, it could cause a high civilian casualty toll and mass displacement. It would likely also incur even stronger international condemnation than it has received already. Ankara should therefore limit its military objectives, lest its operation backfire, worsening its already tense relations with Washington, pushing the YPG back to guerrilla tactics and fuelling the PKK insurgency in Turkey.

Failure to move decisively now to avert a broader offensive could quickly undo the victory over ISIS and reduce a region that appeared to have turned the corner on conflict into violently contested terrain once again.