The US’ Dilemma: Alliance Politics Vs. Ethnic Ties in Syria

By Uri Marantz

US-Turkish relations are at an all-time low. The northern theatre of the Syrian civil war, going strong for eight years now, is the focal point of the latest tension. Recently, the US has announced that it is doubling down on one of the most effective fighting forces in the region, the Kurds, hoping to capitalize on hard-fought gains that US-backed Kurdish forces have made against the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Turkish offensives have crippled Kurdish militias resulted in the loss of life for Syrian civilians. The US position has been deliberately ambiguous to avoid antagonizing another close US ally, Turkey, but recent commitments to the Kurds have drawn harsh reactions from the Turks. In response to US promises to the Kurds that it would train a 30,000-strong army to stabilize the region and back a permanent border protection force east of the Euphrates, Turkey has fired back, accusing the US of “building an army of terror” on its doorstep, threatening to “drown” the US-backed forces with its own onslaught, and even firing on US troops if they get in harm’s way. These statements are unprecedented.

Turkish Military Intervention in Northern Syria

Why is the Turkish government launching a military operation into northern Syria in 2018? Is the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, really willing to risk an all-out war with the US over its policy of support for the Kurds in the Syrian civil war? Has the US’ ambiguous policy in northern Syria of low-key but forceful support for the Kurds so they can fight IS without antagonizing the Turks reached the limits of its effectiveness? Amid the many questions one could ask about this perplexing situation, perhaps the most timely one is whether the US has a deliberate strategy that may even remotely succeed. I argue that as long as US forces are strategically embedded among the Kurds in the northern town of Manbij, Turkish forces are unlikely to force the issue and provoke a direct confrontation. There is a certain bargaining logic, a method to this madness, that US commanders are counting on to deter Turkish adventurism in this conflict. The strategic logic is reminiscent of what Thomas C. Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and scholar of strategy, calls the “art of commitment” in deterring one’s enemies.

Coercion and deterrence are central themes in Schelling’s 1966 classic, Arms and Influence. At its heart, the art of commitment is about relinquishing the initiative. It is important to first maneuver oneself into an advantageous position, a defensible posture, before handing the initiative over to the enemy to force the confrontation. The deterrent is in the “power to hurt” the enemy if they decide to follow through on a reckless course of action, even if it hurts oneself to do so. Of course, words are not enough to make this point. The art of commitment requires action to be credible. This is why standing armies burn bridges behind them: it eliminates any option to retreat in the face of an enemy’s assault, demonstrating a commitment to stand and fight because the only other option is death or defeat. The same counter-intuitive logic applies to the “trip wire” of US forces stationed in Japan and South Korea since the 1950s. By maneuvering themselves into an uncompromising position (of strength, in this case) and then “relinquishing” the initiative, the US has managed to effectively outsource the decision of whether to start a war or not to its enemies. The same logic applies among US allies in Syria today.

US Alliance Politics with Local and Regional Actors

Years of close military coordination with US forces on the ground have helped Kurdish forces clear Islamic State (IS) and other Salafist-jihadist strongholds in the area and establish command and control over what is likely to form the core of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in a post-war Syria. As the Kurds grow more capable, confident, and battle-hardened, however, Turkey is likely to perceive a rising threat and respond with threatening postures and the use of force. Hence the US dilemma: two of its closest allies in the Syrian civil war are actually enemies with starkly divergent preferences. If Turkish forces follow through on their threat to extend the intervention east of Afrin to Manbij, where 2,000 US special forces are stationed as part of the international coalition against IS, the ensuing conflict would not just destabilize northern Syria, it would spark an unprecedented military conflict between the US and Turkey, two central NATO allies.

On January 20, 2018, Turkish forces launched their most recent military intervention in northern Syria against resurgent Kurdish forces. Despite code-naming the latest offensive Operation Olive Branch, its mandate is far from peaceful. The goal is to stymie advances made by the mostly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Afrin district, all under the umbrella of the Kurdish Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Turkey claims to be fighting the Islamic State (IS) as well, but no known IS forces are known to exist in this region. This is ironic since Kurdish forces were only able to advance in these territories after they succeeded in fighting to evict IS from wide swathes of northern Syria. In recent weeks, the Kurds have withdrawn strategic garrisons from Deir al-Zour in the east to reinforce besieged positions in Afrin, citing the failure of the US to deter Turkish advances as forcing their hands. This is controversial because the remnants of IS, including its senior leadership, are believed to be holed up there, and the priority of the US and its allies in Syria is supposed to be defeating IS once and for all. So how do Schelling’s bargaining theories help us understand why Turkey is unlikely to force a full-on conflict as long as US forces are stationed in Manbij and integrated with local Kurdish forces?

Arms, Influence, and Deterrence at Play

The US has committed itself to the Kurds in northern Syria more than words ever could by deploying Special Forces in and around Manbij and refusing to evacuate them despite Turkey’s increasingly belligerent demands. US foreign policy has been muddled, confused, and ambiguous in Syria for years, and the election of President Donald J. Trump has done little to change this state of affairs. Nevertheless, US military commanders decided that the risk of supporting Kurdish fighters by deploying ground personnel in this war was worth the benefit long before Turkeys’ latest intervention in northern Syria. For the US to withdraw now would incapacitate the Kurds, risking its progress against IS, inviting Russian and Iranian influence into this part of Syria, and crippling US credibility among its allies going forward. For all these reasons, US commitment to the Kurdish SDF remains intact and the refusal of US forces to vacate the premises in the face of Turkish aggression virtually guarantees that the Turks cannot advance on Manbij as long as US forces are present. While 2,000 US special forces may not be able to stop tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers and Turkish-backed rebels, they may still act as a credible “trip wire” that would provoke a harsh retaliation if crossed.

Following Operation Shah Euphrates in 2015 and Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016-2017, Operation Olive Branch may be part of a strategy to bolster President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s image ahead of a possible election in 2018. The PYD, YPG, SDF, and other Kurdish forces are seen as extensions and enablers of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which the Turkish government has long been at odds with after fighting a decades-long civil war to a virtual stalemate and seeks to punish by targeting Kurds in the Syrian civil war. The anti-Kurdish offensive is part of a tried-and-true strategy of ethnic politics to promote Turkish nationalism and fire up the conservative base. There may be some logic to the diversionary war theory after all, which suggests leaders facing domestic problems divert attention by launching militarized conflicts abroad. If done well, Erdogan may even benefit from rally-round-the-flag effects. Nothing unites the people like the threat, real or imaginary, of a shared enemy. So far, military operations into Syria have proven popular in Turkey. As long as the Turks refrain from targeting US forces, which for now remain embedded in the Kurdish forces in Manbij, Erdogan will likely benefit from Operation Olive Branch and capitalize on the ethnic nationalist dividends gained from Syria.

 

Uri Marantz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Conflict Management and Resolution program at NPSIA. 

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Launching a “Bloody Nose” Attack Against North Korea is Likely to Backfire

by Mark Haichin

Throughout the past few weeks, there’s been considerable speculation that the Trump administration is considering a preventive military strike against North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons program. Presumably, this strike would target some aspect of the weapons program, like a nuclear facility or launch site, to signal to Kim Jong-Un and his regime that they need to act less aggressively or face a larger-scale attack in the future. The logic here is that a “rational” government would be expected to weigh the costs of backing down versus the costs of fighting against a nuclear superpower and choose the former, since the latter would almost certainly result in losing power or being outright annihilated. This would seem to be pretty consistent with basic deterrence theory so far, since a limited attack could be considered a signal of American willingness to retaliate against a North Korean attack (just ignore the Trump administration’s statements that North Korea can’t be deterred).

The problem is that trying to get North Korea to back down by “bloodying its nose” is a a fundamentally flawed plan. If anything, the evidence seems to suggest that launching this kind of attack against North Korea is, at best, likely to be totally ineffective at getting Kim Jong-Un’s government to back down on its aggression. The worst-case scenario, going from both my own research and the work of mostcommentators observing the current crisis, is that this could actually provoke North Korea into attacking the US or South Korea – i.e. the very thing that the attack is meant to prevent. So why is it that a limited strike against North Korea is such a bad idea?

To begin with, it assumes that the North Korean government has the same sensitivity to the costs of war as the US. There’s a large body of research, however, that argues that this is not the case. Rather, nondemocratic states like North Korea are expected to be less sensitive to the costs of war to their population than a democracy because their governments draw power from a few elite supporters instead of a large base of voters. As a result, they’re not worried about being voted out of office because of an unpopular and costly war; instead, they need to keep their backers (usually political elites and top military officers) rewarded to keep their support. My own PhD research suggests that these governments will be fine with fighting other states if their supporters don’t suffer as a result. Moreover, an actual attack against them will put these regimes in a position where they need to retaliate in some way to avoid looking weak, since that can get them removed from office (sometimes in a very permanent manner).

In the North Korean context, this means that launching a limited attack to try and scare the regime with the potential costs of war is unlikely to work. Historically, the Kims have repeatedly shown that they are willing to let their citizens suffer extraordinary costs to retain power, including causing famines by redirecting resources to their supporters. Furthermore, North Korea has also repeatedly antagonized the US and South Korea, including capturing the USS Pueblo in 1968and repeatedly attempting to assassinate South Korean presidents. The North Korean government has continued to act aggressively despite becoming diplomatically isolated and repeatedly sanctioned for its actions, since its supporters mitigate the costs by taking resources from the population instead. A preventive attack against North Korea would fail to deter it from further aggression simply because its government is insensitive to costs that don’t directly impact the leadership.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Sejong_the_Great_%28DDG_991%29%2C_Yang_Manchun_%28DDH_973%29%2C_USS_Wayne_E._Meyer_%28DDG_108%29%2C_USS_Michael_Murphy_%28DDG_112%29%2C_USS_Stethem_%28DDG_63%29%2C_USS_Lake_Champlain_%28CG_57%29_and_Nimitz-class_aircraft_carrier_USS_Carl_Vinson_%28CVN_70%29_%2834389374276%29.jpg
The USS Carl Vinson and several South Korean Navy ships conducting a joint exercise in South Korean waters in May 2017

What the “bloody nose” strike is likely to accomplish is provoke North Korea into attacking either South Korea or the US in retaliation. Given the numerous threats made by President Trump throughout 2017 and the buildup of US forces nearby, it would be easy for Kim to assume that even a limited attack is the prelude to a larger war. If this was the case, he would likely respond with force to deter the US from escalating further, which would mean his removal from power and, in all likelihood, his death. This would likely mean attacking Seoul with the thousands of artillery pieces placed near the border, as well as launching conventional and nuclear missiles at American military targets, which even conservative estimates suggest would lead to hundreds of thousands being killed. Even if the limited strike is recognized for what it is, Kim would likely still launch some kind of limited reprisal as a show of strength and to avoid a potential coup. Overall, proposals to deter North Korea with a limited attack are more than likely to lead to disaster instead of deterrence.

 

Mark Haichin is a PhD candidate with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.

Guidelines for NATO Spending: Inputs, not Outputs or Outcomes

I tend to complain a lot about the NATO 2% expectation – that members are supposed to spend 2% of their GDP on defense stuff, which probably makes more Canadian than anything else I do (I don’t skate or watch hockey much).  This is aspirational and countries are supposed to reach it by 2024.  I have written much about why this is problematic (it tends to make Greece look good, which is a clue; doing is more important than spending, etc), but today I want to focus on the heart of the matter: 2% is a measure of input and nothing else.

The basic idea is if we all spend a significant hunk of money, we will get more defense than if we spend somewhat less money.  But spending more money on defense may not improve NATO’s ability to field effective armies, navies and air forces.  For many members, spending more could simply mean spending more on personnel, which might lead to a more capable force or it might not.  There are additional NATO goals which get far less coverage, which are aimed at persuading members to spend significant hunks of cash on capital–building ships, planes, tanks and other equipment.  Again, this is a focus on input.  Spending more on equipment does not necessarily mean getting better or more equipment.  It could simply mean more waste.

The funny thing is that the US is pushing Belgium to buy the F35, suggesting that this would help them get to 2%.  Buying a super-expensive plane may or may not improve Belgian military performance, but it might get Belgium off of the free-rider list?  I am trying to remember a similar example of being so focused on inputs that they become more important than outcomes, but can’t at the moment.*

Sure, we tend to focus on inputs or even outputs because they are easier to measure, and in NATO dynamics, are things about which it is easier to come to a consensus.  It is hard to measure outcomes like readiness and effectiveness.  Also, big numbers are not secret whereas actual military capability–what can a country really do–might have to be covered in secret sauce.  But what really matters is whether NATO can fight better (against others, not against each other) or not.  Spending more might help, but it might not, depending on where the money goes.  When countries underperform, is it because they underspend or because they have restrictive rules or because they have lousy strategies (who could that be?) or because their procurement processes are busted (hello Canada!) or because the adversary gets a vote?

One last semi-related point: asking the Western democracies to spend more on defense after encouraging austerity post-2008 is a hard sell, and, yes, domestic politics is a thing.  After years of saying that spending must be cut on social programs because debt is the supreme evil, saying that the first priority now must be defense is just not going to fly, especially with all of the complex coalitions that are barely governing so many members of the alliance.

So, as we keep invoking 2%, let’s keep in mind that many countries will never reach it, as it would require more than a few to increase defense spending by 50-100% AND it allows us to ignore the bigger challenges of how to foster greater effectiveness and readiness.

* The only thing I can come up with would be examples from the Soviet Union of meeting five year plan targets by building huge non-usable things that helped reach the goals measured by weight like one really ball-bearing or something like that.

Proxy Proxies

A wise old green man once said: “Do or do not…there is no try!”  Well, when it comes to foreign military training, the reality is very much the opposite: one must try, as engaging with the militaries of other countries is almost unavoidable.  The New York Times ran a “Room for Debate” series on the issue while CIC and its partners have a paper on the topic.  Such efforts are fraught with peril, as Afghanistan and Mali have demonstrated quite clearly.  Engaging the militaries of less stable, less institutionalized countries raises a variety of challenges and risks, but we often forget that not engaging such countries merely passes the risks on to others.

The biggest risk, of course, is failing­­ – that heaps of resources can go to support the training and socialization of another military, but it may not work out.  The newly trained and outfitted military may direct its resources to overthrowing the national government or repressing the population.  These poor outcomes are costly not only to the trainee’s country but also to the trainers’ countries, which are inevitably assigned at least partial blame.  The second biggest problem is that real change takes a great deal of time.  Columbia is now seen as a success story, but how many decades has the U.S. been working to improve the Columbian military?  And what has happened during that time frame?

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