The US has admitted being faced with large scale desertions of its SDF proxy force in north-eastern Syria and has had no choice but to admit to an “operational pause” in ground activities in regions east of the Euphrates. This is due to Kurdish fighters who had fought under the SDF flag, leaving their posts in US occupied territory to travel west to the Afrin region in order to fight with their brethren against Turkish forces conducting Operation Olive Branch against YPG/PKK targets. Far from being an altruistic force, the Kurdish militants simply think that at this point in time, they have more to strategically gain by playing Turkey against Syria in Afrin than by cooperating with the US in its “mission guard the oil fields” in eastern Syria.
In an ill conceived balancing act, the US has attempted to pass-off the SDF as a unique fighting force that is operationally and ideologically separate from the Kurdish PYG/PKK units in the region. In reality, the SDF was always a collection of YPG fighters with the addition of a handful of Takfiri fighters who in recent months have oddly been augmented by released Daesh prisoners whom the SDF is allegedly fighting. To this end, both Russia and Syria have accused the US and its proxies of failing to fight Daesh in any meaningful way, throughout their involvement in Syria.
As SDF fighters flow into Afrin and both YPG and SDF spokesmen issue statements regarding opposition to Operation Live Branch, the US can no longer even attempt to pretend that the SDF is anything more than an off-shoot of the YPG, whose fighters have the same agenda, same political loyalties and in most cases, are individuals who have fought under both SDF, YPG and occasionally PKK flags in an interchangeable fashion. An obvious clue regarding this reality, was the fact that SDF forces congregated in Raqqa after the US bombed it into oblivion, holding a combination of YPG flags and bearing photos of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Turkey has long stated that these are the facts and now it would appear that the Pentagon has no choice but to admit this, given the fact that the US is now incapable of conducting group missions in north-eastern Syria due to the high number of SDF desertions to Afrin.
While the US now admits that its operations in north-eastern Syria will be limited to airstrikes as a result of SDF desertions, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning nevertheless referred to the SDF as a “major partner” of the US, in a statement that has already earned the ire of the Turkish press.
The most immediate implication is that the US has been operationally and geopolitically embarrassed while Turkey’s statements regarding the SDF have been vindicated by the US statement. However, in the medium and long-term, the issue becomes even more thorny for the US.
While official US policy in respect of ‘regime change’, foreign invasions, bombing campaigns and illegal occupations of sovereign countries has not changed since the infamous 2003 invasion of Iraq, part of the way in which the US conducts such operations has at least partly changed.
Seeing the amount of casualties among US soldiers in Iraq after 2003, the US public grew weary of such kinds of wars. As a result the following happened which I discussed in a recent piece,
“It was during the Obama era that the US deep state decided to embrace a guerrilla strategy which would see modern weapons made by the powerful military-industrial complex, bought with US tax money, shipped along with cash incentives to wannabe mercenaries across the world, but particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. After seeing how Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam and George W. Bush’s war in Iraq resulted in high casualties among US troops, tremendous amount of expenditure and deep unpopularity among the American public, the US clearly needed a new strategy. Likewise, after seeing how Bill Clinton’s bombing of Iraq in 1998 and Ronald Reagan’s bombing of Libya in 1986 failed to foment the much coveted ‘regime change’–Washington needed a model that combined the “virtues” of both models while eliminating the “inefficiencies” of both models.
The result is that the US military-industrial complex as well as the US Treasury became a de-facto charity for wannabe foreign mercenaries who were transformed by the US into tactical guerrilla fighters, all the while acting as US proxies. At the same time, the US Air Force acted as the unofficial Air Force of these guerrilla fighters, thus creating new ‘Vietnams’ and new ‘Iraqs’ but ones where few American foot soldiers were never in harms way. The use of weaponised drones further removed Americans from the bloodsoaked conflicts in places like Libya and Syria where this strategy has been fully employed”.
In this sense, while there are by some estimates, over 4,000 US troops in Syria, most have remained relatively far from the contact lines in any given battle scenario. One grim but essential statistic that can be used to demonstrate the different logistical strategies of countries in the Syrian conflict is the number of battlefield casualties. Since beginning its involvement in the conflict, Russia has lost 46 servicemen in Syria. By contrast, the US has lost zero according to official public records. This should not be surprising given that US servicemen are far from the front lines, while Russians have been deeply involved in working with their Syrian partners on the front line against terrorism.
Thus, one sees the importance of a guerrilla force like the SDF to the US side. While the US still has SDF fighters in its occupation zone east of the Euphrates, the fact that there are not enough of these fighters to be able to conduct even limited operations, means that a substantial number have fled to Afrin, although the Pentagon has not released exact figures.
For the US, this will likely mean either bribing or blackmailing prodigal SDF fighters back to their zone of occupation or else doing one of two things. The US can either fund, train or import another Takfiri proxy group to its zone of occupation in north-eastern Syria or it can put its own soldiers on the front line. Both of these options will be difficult for the US, as finding a proxy force capable of standing its ground is getting increasingly difficult in a country where the government is liberating more and more territory.
Secondly, if US soldiers were to move to the front lines and guard the oil fields that the SDF had previously been guarding on America’s behalf – should any skirmishes let alone real firefights breakout and US solders were to be killed or injured, Donald Trump could then be accused of making the same logistical and strategic mistake George W. Bush made in Iraq by putting US troops directly into harms way. This would be doubly embarrassing for Trump as the current US President has been highly critical of Bush’s Iraq war.
Beyond being in the bind of trying to decide whether lure the Kurdish fighters of the SDF back, raising a new Takfiri proxy force or standing on the front lines themselves, the US has learnt a valuable lesson regarding Kurdish militants that was described by geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko in the following way,
“Betrayal’ implies that there must have been sincere trust in the relationship, which was never the case with any of the Kurds’ extra-regional Great Power partners, nor will there ever be because of pure Neo-Realist considerations that even they themselves should surely be aware of by now.
Every so often one stumbles upon a statement by a Kurdish official alleging that one or another Great Power “betrayed” the Kurds, such as what Russia has recently been accused of after giving Turkey the green light for “Operation Olive Branch”, and these claims frequently pop up at a dizzying pace all across social media whenever a Neo-Marxist supporter of “Kurdistan” is trying to make a point and win sympathy for their “cause”. Never mind that there’s no such thing as “Kurdistan” in the first place and that it’s much more accurate to refer to this ultra-diverse sub-state region as the “Kurdish Cultural Space” (KCS) instead, but the idea being conveyed is that its people have repeatedly been let down by anyone who they’ve been made to believe ever gave them any hope at achieving their demagogues’ dreams of ‘independence”.
Ironically, just as the US decided to take the side of Kurdish fighters in northern Syria for its own strategic purposes rather than attempt to genuinely placate its former Turkish ally, the US now finds that Turkey is as furious as ever, while the SDF has abandoned its posts in the US zone of occupation. Clearly the US bet on the wrong proxy force and in doing so has backed itself into a corner. Now, the US is left with more questions than answers. Of course one answer could be to leave Syria which is not likely in the immediate term. However, if anything, the undeniable revelation that the US now literally stands alone in eastern Syria, does push the situation one step closer to an eventual US withdrawal as Washington now has little meaningful proxy support in eastern Syria, while it has essentially zero support from any of the other state parties to the conflict.