Fighters belonging to the most important players in the Syrian civil war converged on the small Syrian city of Manbij last week, illustrating the complexity of a conflict which will be six years old on March 15 and reminding us that the Trump administration is yet to outline a coherent strategy.
Russian and American special forces, Kurdish militia and Turkish troops and their local rebel allies have all been spotted in and around Manbij, with the potential to become a flashpoint in the continuing rivalry between these groups which have one thing in common: they all fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in one way or another.
Despite their apparent mutual interests, the Turkish and Kurdish parties are at each other’s throats. Turkey wants to keep Kurdish aspirations in check and the Kurds want to carve out more land, there’s little middle ground. They are racing towards ISIL’s de facto capital, Raqqa. The liberator of Raqqa would be well placed to re-arrange Syria’s ethno-political landscape.
US special forces driving through an active Syrian hot spot, while Russian soldiers patrol just five kilometres away, is a rare occurrence. Indeed, US activity on the ground in Syria has been limited relative to their operations next door in Iraq.
The American show of force in Manbij is part of an effort to stop fighting between the Turkish and Kurdish factions, something the Pentagon is calling “reassure and deter”. It’s an example of the predicament that US leadership in the region faces.
US forces are embedded with and fund and equip the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of some Arab but mainly Kurdish fighters that experts see as the best anti-ISIL fighting force. NATO member Turkey, however, sees the group as connected to Kurdish “terrorists”, specifically the PKK, a militant separatist group that has been at war with the Turkish state for decades.
Adding to this problem, we have no idea what the new US administration is going to do about it. A plan years in the making formulated by the Obama White House that would have seen intensified air and ground support for a SDF liberation of Raqqa has been tossed out by Trump’s team, according to the Washington Post, possibly delaying the operation by a year.
Due to a lack of public comment, news media is having to use Trump’s comments from the raucous campaign trail to represent some sort of White House perspective on Syria, comments like a child talking about his toy soldiers and making explosion sounds.
Trump has said next to nothing on the Syria issue since his inauguration. He said that he will “quickly […] destroy” ISIL and that he “will absolutely do safe zones” without providing any details.
The White House’s complete lack of leadership on one of the world’s most immediate foreign policy challenges is of no surprise to those not recently living under a rock.
Yes, the US military can continue to function independently of the executive’s policy directions. However, the possibility for a sustained military-led US foreign policy should alarm us, especially considering the Trump administration’s plans to boost military spending while gutting the State Department and deprioritising diplomatic and humanitarian tools.
If the United States wants to continue to have a say in the Middle East’s future then a civilian-led strategy needs to be articulated now. The race to Raqqa is entering its final stretch.