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Afrin Marks the Point of Collapse for American Influence in Syria

Crossposted from Asia Times


Abandoned by Washington and under bombardment by the Turkish army, the beleaguered Kurdish forces in the northern Syrian town of Afrin asked for, and received, help from Russia. A spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia announced on February 20 that the Russian-backed government of Bashar al-Assad would send reinforcements to Afrin to assist the Kurds. France24 reported that a convoy of pro-Assad forces entering Afrin came under Turkish artillery fire, and Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan claimed the government forces had to turn back.

The situation on the ground is unclear, but what is painfully clear is that Kurds have been abandoned by the United States less than a month after the Pentagon announced the formation of a 30,000-man "Border Security Force" in northern Syria composed mainly of Kurdish fighters who had pushed ISIS out of the area. Turkey responded to the American initiative by invading northern Syria and bombing the Kurds, reportedly killing several hundred civilians. In deference to Turkey, the United States did nothing, so the Kurds asked for help from Russia.

As Alfred Hackenberger wrote in the German daily Die Welt, on February 19: “Russia would belong to the winners in the case of a Syrian-Kurdish military alliance. It would expand Russia’s military control of the country markedly. And Turkey would have to stop its invasion of Afrin, because a confrontation with Syrian soldiers would bring it directly into conflict with Russia.”

The siege of Afrin, to be sure, seems a minor episode in the long and miserable course of Syria’s civil war, but it may turn out to demarcate the point that American influence in the region collapsed beyond repair. Trained by the U.S. and German armed forces, the Kurds represented the only effective force on the ground independent of the Russian-backed Assad regime following the defeat of Sunni militias backed by the U.S., Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The Kurdish resurgence in Syria, though, drew a ferocious response from Turkey, which fears that Kurdish self-government spanning Iraq and Syria on its southeastern border would link up with its own rapidly growing Kurdish population. More than half of Turkey’s population under 30 will be ethnic Kurds by the mid-2040s.

For the U.S. administration, American assets in the region are like hotels on the Monopoly board, to be protected individually and piecemeal. No unified strategy ranks their relative importance or gauges whether they might be sacrificed for a larger goal.

After its painful experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. won’t put boots on the ground beyond the few thousand special forces now deployed in Syria. The Kurds fought as a NATO auxiliary against ISIS and wanted nothing more than an American alliance. The Turks, meanwhile, are NATO members in name only and are hostile to key American interests. Among other things, Turkey is helping Russia to bypass Ukraine in delivering gas to southern Europe via the Turkstream pipeline. The Turks are bargaining hard with Russia, but ultimately will play ball.