What could be worse than a messy American intervention in Syria — a military campaign that looks to be as expensive, indeterminate, and possibly counter-productive as Uncle Sam's litany of other Middle East entanglements?
Maybe an expensive, indeterminate, and definitely counter-productive intervention in Syria where we're actually fighting ourselves by proxy.
Alas, that is exactly the situation on the ground, as U.S.-supported "moderate" militias find themselves fighting U.S.-supported Kurdish fighters in groups known as People's Protection Units (YPG). The former have the backing of the CIA, which supports their rebellion against the brutal Assad regime, coupled with their opposition to the radicalized Islam of ISIS. The latter are funded, armed, and trained by the Pentagon, which sees the Kurds as a vital piece in the anti-ISIS coalition.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
The Syrian rebels and the Kurds are fighting each other. Oh, and it's getting worse.
Of course, Washington has not exactly been forthcoming with recognition about this counteractive dynamic. "Syria continues to be a very complex and challenging environment," said U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Patrick J. Ryder, who seems to be a master of understatement. He added, "I can tell you that we remain focused on supporting indigenous anti-[ISIS] ground forces in their fight against [ISIS]." That's technically true, as both the YPG and the rebels are indeed fighting ISIS. But it's also a supporting role that apparently does not exclude a proxy war against ourselves.
Of course, the Department of Defense (DoD) has told its Kurdish proxies to stop attacking the CIA-backed rebels, but with limited effect. To the rebels themselves, U.S. failure to control the YPG suggests America is not a trustworthy ally: As conflict among U.S.-supported groups continues, it looks like Washington is "just watching," in the words of one militia leader. "That is a major problem," notes Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who is an authority on Syria. "It's not just that it's a nonsense policy. It's that we're losing influence so rapidly to the Russians that people just aren't listening to us anymore."
For its part, the Pentagon insists that it backs the Kurdish YPG only insofar as it is doing the things we like: Per a DoD official, the U.S. is "supporting the [YPG] east of the Euphrates River, in its fight against ISIS, but not in its new campaign against rebel groups to the west" — as if money isn't fungible and weapons and training can't be shared.
One reason American taxpayers are footing a seemingly endless bill to arm the YPG is that these Kurdish fighters face opponents who are also armed with American equipment. As the State Department said, ISIS "has obtained some heavy weaponry, and the Kurds need additional arms and we're providing those."
That's true as far as it goes, but it carefully avoids mentioning the source of that heavy weaponry ISIS is using: It includes hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of equipment which the United States military brought to Iraq following the 2003 invasion. Those materials were given to the Iraqi army, and are now in ISIS's hands.
So our government is arming the Kurdish YPG with American weapons to fight ISIS, which is also armed with American weapons. And the American weapons captured by ISIS are being destroyed by still other American weapons in American airstrikes. And the Syrian moderate militias, armed with American weapons, are fighting both the YPG and ISIS with their respective — you guessed it! — American weapons.
We've paid to arm all actors in this messy conflict at one point or another. We're fighting ourselves by proxy. And we're bombing our own stolen stuff.
"It's very strange, and I cannot understand it," said Ahmed Othman, commander of one U.S.-backed rebel group in Syria, of the bizarre web of costly counter-productivity American foreign policy has become.
It is very strange indeed, and I can't understand it either.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.