The last Big Thing in the history of America’s war against the Islamic State as told in US Government and military press releases was the expulsion, last October, of ISIS from Raqqa, Syria, its last major urban stronghold.
The meaning of that last Biggie is clear, the conventional war against the Islamic State is over and they lost. Often, though, that modifier “conventional” gets left out of the official messages, and so few Americans realize that, even after the retreat from Raqqa, after the serial retreats from Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, Mosul and Tal Afar, ISIS still has significant cells operating in Syria and several isolated parts of Iraq. ISIS’ unconventional warfare continues.
Which is one reason given for the necessity of the next Big Thing on America’s agenda in Syria, a permanent-until-we-tell-you-otherwise 30,000 person fighting force, American-financed, American-trained, and American-allied, but commanded by Kurds. These are same Kurds who ran the US-led coalition’s ground campaign against ISIS in Raqqa. In this region, 30,000 fighters are a big force, but what makes this initiative really big is that it implies several thousand American boots on the ground.
They’ll be called trainers, but they will supply many services beyond training. Sometimes mere proximity will turn them into combatants – and location also makes them endangered canaries in a lethal coal mine.
Their permanent-until-otherwise presence is meant to solidify our support for our Kurdish allies and effectively to reinforce their invention of what they call Rojava, a Kurdish micro-state that wants to paint a stripe of territory along the whole of Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
America says its support for Kurdish claims stops at the east bank of the Euphrates River and that its client army’s region is limited to just the triangular third of Syria north and east of the Euphrates. But there are no half-measures to Turkey’s rejection of the idea of Kurdish dominion anywhere near its borders.
Turkish President Erdogan has waged a series of wars against Kurds, first political abuse, then police state oppression inside Turkey, small-scale military attacks in Iraq and over the past few weeks, full-scale conventional war in northern Syria.
So far, the Turkish Army’s attacks have been against Kurdish forces around Afrin, well west of the Euphrates and miles from the nearest American encampment. But Erdogan has threatened to attack the town of Manbij, where Americans are stationed.
A recent event near Deir ez-Zour, well south of the border should have gotten Erdogan’s attention.
Troops fighting for the Syrian Government of President Bashar al-Assad attacked Kurdish forces just east of the Euphrates. American troops were also based there and called for a counter-attack. A US air strike killed not just government soldiers, but, according to Bloomberg News, as many as 200 Russian “mercenaries.”
So far, the Putin government has not taken the casualties nationally, but it could. While Americans have been encouraged to congratulate ourselves on defeating the Islamic State, the war in Syria has gotten newly-dangerous.
That point was made even more sharply by the exchange that started with a Syrian (maybe Iranian) drone penetrating Israeli airspace and ended with Israeli air attacks on several Assad Government and Iranian bases in Syria.
Which brings us back to the new Big Thing, the military establishment in Northeast Syria. In testimony before Congress, a top State Department official said the mission in Syria was not just to stabilize the Kurdish zone and restrain Iran, but “to protect our allies from the very real threat Hezbollah poses in southwest Syria.”
If part of the so-called “border security” mission is to protect Israel at the exact opposite corner of Syria, hundreds of miles away, this implies a commitment of more personnel, with different skills and different weapons, from what our Government has seen fit to tell us about. It wouldn’t take too much “mission creep” to turn this into an even Bigger Thing, a new American military base in the middle east.
Roy Gutman has been a foreign affairs journalist in Washington and abroad for more than four decades. His reports for Newsday on “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, including the first documented accounts of Serb-run concentration camps, won the Pulitzer Prize, the George Polk Award for foreign reporting, the Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting and other honors. He also was part of the McClatchy team that won the George Polk award for foreign reporting in 2013. His books include Banana Diplomacy, A Witness to Genocide, and How We Missed the Story: Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan. Since McClatchy closed all their foreign bureaus in 2016, Roy has continued to report for The Nation, Foreign Policy, Mideast Forum, and The Daily Beast. He has most recently completed reporting a Frontline Documentary on Syria.