Diminishing returns all around

The state of affairs in Syria, as of yesterday (Wikimedia | Spesh531)

A few days ago I wrote this about Washington’s relationship with the Syrian Kurdish PYD and YPG:

Something else to consider here is that the situation in Syria may be at a point where the return on US support for PYD and YPG has diminished so much that the alliance no longer makes sense for Washington. Syria’s Kurds aren’t exactly allied with Bashar al-Assad, but they a) are fighting some of the same insurgent groups that Assad is fighting, and b) have some (probably less than the Turkish government alleges but probably more than the US has been willing to admit) affinity with Russia, Assad’s biggest military booster. So Assad is simultaneously the enemy of some of their enemies and a friend of a friend. And lately the Kurdish effort to extend their zone of control across all of northern Syria has shifted focus from the northeast, where they were fighting ISIS, to the northwest, where they’re fighting rebel groups around Aleppo (frequently under the cover, intentional or not, of Russian air power), some of whom might be the kind of rebels with whom Washington would like to develop a relationship.

Part of this wasn’t entirely fair. As Juan Cole writes, there have been some recent developments in the Kurd-ISIS fight in northeast Syria:

In the far northeast of Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces took the key town of al-Shaddadi, south of the city of Hasakah. The predominant force within the SDF is the YPG Kurdish militia. The Kurds of this region are attempting to carve out a semi-autonomous Kurdish ethnic province in Syria, which they call Rojava, and al-Shaddadi may mark its southern extent. The town was notorious as a slave market for Daesh, where Yazidi girls were sold. It also sits astride the main road link between Raqqa and Mosul, the Syrian and Iraqi capitals of the phony caliphate, respectively. Losing it may also make it harder for Daesh to supply its fighters in Deir al-Zor to the south.

But the bulk of what I wrote is actually being seen on the ground, per Buzzfeed:

The confusion is playing out on the battlefield — with the U.S. effectively engaged in a proxy war with itself. “It’s very strange, and I cannot understand it,” said Ahmed Othman, the commander of the U.S.-backed rebel battalion Furqa al-Sultan Murad, who said he had come under attack from U.S.-backed Kurdish militants in Aleppo this week.

Furqa al-Sultan Murad receives weapons from the U.S. and its allies as part of a covert program, overseen by the CIA, that aids rebel groups struggling to overthrow the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, according to rebel officials and analysts tracking the conflict.

The Kurdish militants, on the other hand, receive weapons and support from the Pentagon as part of U.S. efforts to fight ISIS. Known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, they are the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s strategy against the extremists in Syria and coordinate regularly with U.S. airstrikes.

Yet as Assad and his Russian allies have routed rebels around Aleppo in recent weeks — rolling back Islamist factions and moderate U.S. allies alike, as aid groups warn of a humanitarian catastrophe — the YPG has seized the opportunity to take ground from these groups, too.

This sounds like Washington is eating its own tail, which to some extent is true, but it all comes out of the constant and yet consistently disproven American belief that it will be able to build, train, and equip an army of Syrian Arab rebels whose primary focus is on fighting ISIS rather than fighting Assad. This is more or less like a group of chemical engineers insisting that they can too invent a product that is both floor wax and dessert topping:

Look, guys, it’s not happening, OK?

But it’s this belief that has been at the core of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, the one that’s actually rolled ISIS back somewhat, but has done so while basically ignoring the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen since World War II.

Anyway, these reports do indicate that we’re finally seeing the downside of going all-in on the Kurds. On the other hand, the situation around Aleppo also shows the downside of going all-in on the unicorn-like “moderate Arab rebel”:

One of the many problems to be overcome is a differing definition of what constitutes a terrorist group. In addition to the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Russia and Syria have labeled the entire opposition as terrorists.

Jabhat al-Nusra, whose forces are intermingled with moderate rebel groups in the northwest near the Turkish border, is particularly problematic. Russia was said to have rejected a U.S. proposal to leave Jabhat al-Nusra off-limits to bombing as part of a cease-fire, at least temporarily, until the groups can be sorted out.

Jabhat al-Nusra, AKA al-Qaeda in Syria, is so enmeshed with the “moderate” rebels in northwest Syria that the United States is now trying to run diplomatic interference for it with Russia. “Kafka-esque” doesn’t do this justice, but this is where Washington finds itself: fighting a proxy war against itself where one of the proxies is allied with al-Qaeda.

The United States and Russia spent all weekend in talks about taking their “cessation of hostilities” agreement and actually trying to cease hostilities under it. Yesterday John Kerry announced that a “provisional” ceasefire has been reached that would stop the fighting except with respect to groups that the UN Security Council designates as terrorists, and just within the past hour or so there has been breaking news that seemingly confirms what Kerry said. Of course, the US and Russia can agree on pretty much anything, and it won’t matter at all if they’re unable to sell it to their proxies inside Syria, and, well, good luck with that. There’s also another problem, which is that the ceasefire deal explicitly excludes ISIS and Nusra. Nusra, if you scroll back up a paragraph, is currently “intermingled” with a whole bunch of groups that the US supports and Russia wants to destroy. I doubt that Russia plans on being as discerning with its choice of Nusra targets as the US would prefer.

As if to punctuate the need for a ceasefire, ISIS carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Damascus and Homs yesterday that killed a total of at least 140 people. But the targets were all Alawite and Shiʿa areas in both cities, which means they probably won’t matter much to the Sunni Arab rebels the US is trying to drag into this ceasefire. So expect things to keep on keeping on for a while yet.

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