America’s policies are failing its regional allies

The US's reluctance to get further involved in the Syrian conflict is being shown in the looming battle for Aleppo, writes Hassan Hassan.

Aleppo is shaping up as a key battleground between the groups aiming to control Syria. (Thaer Mohammed / AFP)
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Last week, there were reported hints that Saudi Arabia, under certain circumstances, could send troops to Syria to fight against ISIL. The suggestion follows months of calls by western officials for Sunni Arab countries to deploy forces to fight the extremist group.

In November, for instance, US secretary of defence Ashton Carter told The Atlantic about advice he had fiven to the Gulf states that they should be involved on the ground, rather than from the air: "I've said the same things to them: 'Guys, you come and complain to us but you're not in the game. You have to get in the game'."

But on Wednesday last week, Mr Carter did not seem so keen on the idea. He said: “I just want to emphasise there are lots of different ways that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain can contribute. One of them is on the ground – and we’ll definitely be discussing that – but there are lots of other ways as well.”

The United States sees any talk of Saudi Arabia sending in ground troops as an attempt to force its own hands in Syria.

According to The Wall Street Journal, US officials have complained that suggestions of Gulf states sending troops to Syria were aimed at pressuring president Barack Obama to be more assertive in Syria.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have announced closer military coordination, through the southern Incirlik airbase and a wider Saudi-Turkish strategic coordination council to combat ISIL. But Turkey is also worried about the expansion of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The Turkish military has shelled Syrian regime and YPG bases in Azaz, a town in northern Aleppo province that is seen as the centre of gravity for almost all parties involved the conflict.

ISIL sees Azaz as a gateway to the return of areas it lost in early 2014. The YPG considers Azaz fundamental to its expansionist project to link its cantons in northern Syria, while Turkey has frequently made it clear that it would not tolerate such moves.

The Syrian regime and Russia view Azaz and adjacent areas as central to their strategy of severing rebel supply lines to Turkey. And the United States has called on Turkey to de-escalate hostilities against the YPG, which has proved an effective ally for the US against ISIL.

So, a messy situation is only becoming messier. But Washington bears most of the blame for the uncomfortable situation in which it now finds itself.

In July, disagreements between Ankara and Washington reached a high point when the former wanted to establish an “ISIL-free zone” that would run from Azaz to Jarablus, clearly to disrupt the YPG’s moves.

The US finally resolved the issue by securing a promise from YPG commanders, and their political umbrella Democratic Union Party, not to advance west of the Euphrates river. Turkey scrapped its plan, and allowed the US-led coalition to use the Incirlik airbase to fight ISIL.

Four months later, in late November, the YPG violated its promise and tried to advance in northern Aleppo amid rumours that it was coordinating with the Russians in Syria. The US did not pressure the YPG to keep its side of the bargain and focus on ISIL in northeastern Syria. Worse, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, visited YPG commanders, who have direct links to the Turkish PKK, a group designated as a terrorist organisation by both the US and Turkey.

On Saturday, Mr McGurk tweeted that the administration “urged Syrian Kurdish and other forces affiliated with YPG not to take advantage of a confused situation by seizing new territory”, while also urging Turkey to cease artillery fire on Kurdish positions in Azaz.

The US knows that Turkey views the YPG in the same light as it does ISIL. Both of them are a national security threat, but the YPG’s self-rule project near Turkey’s southern borders presents a more pressing threat for Ankara, partly because the Kurds’ nationalist project could be a more sustainable effort internationally and morally.

The point it that the current crisis is connected to America’s inconsistent policies regarding Syria. Tactical gains, such as working with the YPG to expel ISIL from some areas – gains that project an appearance of progress and success – have become preferable to a wider strategy with long-term returns. Eventually, this has led to a worsening situation for America’s regional allies.

The same mistake is being made with the pursuit of progress, any progress, on the botched peace process, while neglecting the deteriorating situation on the ground.

For regional countries, there is a lesson to be learnt from acquiescing to half-baked US plans or fragile promises.

The increasing assertiveness displayed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey is a good example of how countries in this region should prioritise their own interests. The US administration’s policies have neither achieved the envisioned outcome nor pursued the interests of its allies.

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a think tank in Washington, DC, and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @ hxhassan