Yaşar Yakış
Feb 02 2018

Predicting U.S. actions in the Middle East

The identification of the constants of U.S. policy in Syria is difficult. They may vary from one U.S. department to another. The way they are perceived in the Middle East may also be different from what they originally were. This article will try to analyse how they are perceived by many quarters in Turkey.

One of the important constants of U.S. policy in Syria is the security of Israel and Washington’s Kurdish policy is one of its parts, though it claims that cooperation with the Kurds is purely “transactional and solely based on its utility against the ISIS”, or Islamic State.

Israel is surrounded by Arab countries. The goal of establishing a Kurdish zone in the north of Syria is important for this reason. The United States started by cooperating with Kurds who helped it fight ISIS. Washington persistently refused to cooperate with Turkey in liberating the ISIS capital Raqqa, though it was aware of the contribution that the Turkish army could bring to liberate it. It refused the cooperation partly because it needed an excuse to arm and train the Kurdish fighters to enable them to sit at the negotiation table with the Syrian regime in a stronger bargaining position and partly because of its other disagreements with Turkey.

Independently from the link with Israel’s security, Washington’s Kurdish policy is also part of the wider Kurdish issue that has been on the agenda of international relations for more than 180 years. It is an attractive subject because it gives outside actors leverage on countries that host Kurdish minorities, namely Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

The second constant of U.S. policy in Syria is to deny Iran a foothold in Syria or to prevent its existing foothold becoming stronger. This constant is indirectly related to the first one, because there is no direct threat to U.S. security stemming from Iran’s presence in Syria. It is because of the threat Israel perceives from Iran that the United States wants to check Iran in Syria. After the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Iraq, the vacuum it created was filled by Iran, without firing a shot. Iran achieved this by subtle diplomacy and by betting on the Shia majority of the Iraqi population.

This move in Iraq made Iran’s task easier in Syria, especially in view of the Iranian presence in Lebanon through Hezbollah. The missing link for Iran to expand its hegemony to the Mediterranean was Syria. This is one of the reasons why Syria is important for Iran. Another reason is Iran’s effort to establish a military presence in southwest Syria, near the Israeli border. Israel will probably do everything to prevent Iran from doing so.

The United States is also trying hard, for the same reason, to keep the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis under control. So far the United States used the fight against ISIS as a justification for this endeavour but it remains to be seen how Washington will justify its continued control of this axis after the normalisation of the situation in Syria. Iran may maintain its military presence in Syria, because the Syrian government invited it.

The third constant of U.S. policy is to deny the Russian preponderance in the Middle East. Russia has had a naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean harbour of Tartous since the Soviet times. The base remained dormant after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. The Syrian crisis offered a golden opportunity for Russia to come back to Syria. Turkey’s shooting down a Russian jet fighter after it entered Turkish airspace for 17 seconds in 2015, provided Russia with a justification to establish an air base in Hmeimim, south of Latakia.

The United States was contemplating reducing its military presence in the Middle East and shift focus to the Pacific Rim. Russia’s return to the Middle East may have caused a U.S. change of mind and may have forced it to stay and counterbalance the Russian presence in this critical region.     

Other important developments in the region such as the Turkey-U.S. row over Syria and anti-ISIS fight are variables that are shaped by the foregoing constants.