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. 


From Nascent Insurrections to Full-Blown Insurgencies: Why Some Militant Groups Engage in Sustained Armed Conflicts

The following post summarizes findings from NPSIA Ph.D. Candidate Michael Shkolnik’s latest research paper.

In October 2014, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis conducted a sophisticated, multi-pronged attack targeting two Egyptian military positions and killing 31 soldiers. A month later, that group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, escalating violence and solidifying itself as an unprecedented threat to Egyptian national security. The dramatic and rapid rise of the Islamic State group and its affiliates shocked many observers around the world. By waging a successful military campaign in 2014, the militant organization was able to gain control of significant territory in Syria and Iraq, consolidate new power bases in the region, attract an unprecedented number of foreign fighters, and coordinate large-scale attacks around the world. Now, as the group loses its core territorial stronghold, observers are concerned about the potential emergence and escalation of other terrorist insurgencies around the world.

Data on terrorism and civil wars point to a sharp increase in militant activity worldwide in recent years – both in terms of casualties from terrorist attacks and battle-related deaths during armed conflicts. It is puzzling why some initially weak militant groups, who face immense difficulties in garnering material resources and support, are able to eventually engage in sustained violent operations and confront more powerful militaries. Most militant groups fail to survive beyond their first year, let alone pose a serious threat. Why do some militant groups engage in sustained armed conflicts while other groups do not?

In a recent paper, I conduct quantitative regression analysis on 246 prominent militant groups from 1970-2007 and find that, on average, organizational characteristics are better predictors of sustained armed conflict than measures of group capabilities. Some of my core findings diverge from current explanations of insurgency onset or outcomes. Posing a serious challenge to a state is not necessarily a function of how powerful or capable a group may seem – it’s more about the competitive militant environment and internal organizational capacity to effectively mobilize resources and maintain armed hostilities against regime forces. Three particular factors of importance emerged from my analysis: group ideology, organizational structure, and competitive militant environment.

Militant Group Ideology

Exploiting or fueling grievances among a particular population is critical for groups to mobilize for an insurgency. Some militant groups should be more capable of capitalizing on grievances than others – particularly religious and ethno-nationalist groups that can draw on resources from a well-defined constituency. Religiously motivated groups, in particular, tend to be more lethal and maintain indivisible objectives, making negotiated settlements improbable. These types of organizations are also better at overcoming key militant organizational hurdles: collective action and principal-agent problems. Religious groups are often in a stronger position to effectively screen recruits and mobilize resources via their robust social networks compared to more secular rivals. This is one explanation behind why Hamas was better at managing its operatives than its more secular rival Fatah. Religious groups rarely achieve their ultimate objectives. But my research suggests that those religiously motivated militant groups are far more likely to engage in sustained armed conflicts than other ideologically oriented groups – whether they are ultimately successful or not.

Organizational Structure

Research on social movements and militant group structures suggests that centralized and formally structured groups are more likely to achieve broader objectives than more decentralized groups. Militant groups with hierarchical structures tend to be more lethal and have a higher likelihood of ultimately defeating the states they fight. More centralized and integrated groups are more capable of allocating resources effectively, reducing principal-agent problems, and keeping lower-ranking members in line with the group’s broader objectives. By looking at a different dependent variable, however, my findings challenge conventional wisdom: groups with relatively less centralized command and control are just as likely to engage in sustained armed conflict than the most hierarchically structured organizations. Groups with more autonomous cells and specialized wings should still be able to launch a sustained insurgency, regardless of whether they end up beating the regime. Less centralization might make it harder for counterinsurgency forces to infiltrate and dismantle militant groups.

Competitive Environment

Competition for resources and manpower among rival constituent factions and other rebel groups is particularly crucial in the early phases of a violent conflict. Violence serves as an important signal of capabilities and resolves among groups competing for leadership of a particular constituency. Recent work highlights the importance of rival relations and internal movement structure to assess strategic success. In general, I find that more competitive militant environments also reduce the likelihood any particular group presents a major threat to the states they fight. This study also finds that the overwhelming majority of militant groups that engaged in sustained armed conflicts were the most dominant group in their environment around the time the group challenged the state. In the nascent stages of an insurgency, militant groups often have to consolidate rivals – whether by destructive campaigns or alliance formation – before emerging as the dominant organization and then taking on the regime.

Theoretical and Policy Implications

This study offers some implications for scholarship and policy, by examining an underexplored outcome of interest and addressing a selection bias prevalent across literature on political violence. It is important to study analytically distinct phases of armed conflict and differentiate between various militant group objectives (i.e. organizational, strategic) when evaluating success. Understanding this phenomenon is critical since groups that sustain military operations gain more influence and fundraising capabilities while further weakening the target state. Battlefield successes, in turn, encourage more recruitment and defections from rival groups. It is far more difficult for states to defeat a full-fledged insurgency than prevent a nascent insurrection from flourishing. There is no single theory that can explain particular militant group trajectories and counterinsurgency campaigns require context-specific analysis. But this paper presents generalizable empirical associations across diverse militant groups, while acknowledging the limits of large-n research, and identifies key cases for in-depth analysis by the author in subsequent work.


Michael Shkolnik is a Ph.D. Candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He recently served as a senior adviser and scholar-in-residence with the Strategic Foresight unit in Canada’s foreign ministry, focusing on futures of terrorism and international security trends. In the past, Michael worked with security-related research institutes in Ottawa, Washington D.C., and Israel. The views expressed here are strictly those of the author.

 You can follow him on Twitter:  @Shkolnik_M



Questionable Leadership: The Case of Occupy Gezi

Last week, I wrote a post arguing that the Occupy Gezi movement was leaderless and lacked focus. On June 2nd, it seemed unclear whether the protestors in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara wanted a change in Turkey’s leadership, greater respect for human rights, more trees in urban spaces, less religion in those same spaces, more democracy, or less government. There seemed to be no one political agenda and no one in particular to advance it even if one existed. That said, imagine my shock today when I read that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to meet with the leaders of the protest movement on Wednesday.

Maybe I was wrong about how well or poorly organized the movement is. Having just completed the third year of my PhD, I’ve come to accept that being proven wrong is part of every working day for me (and sometimes weekends too): constructive criticism in the ivory tower is rather, um, blunt and not all that constructive outside of helping you build character. Furthermore, it is hard for me to keep my finger on the pulse of Istanbul when I’m sitting at a desk in Ottawa.

I don’t think I am wrong, however. Let me explain why.

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The Limits of Turkey’s Occupy Movement

Since Friday, the twitterverse has been saturated with news about a now large, loud, and defiant protest in Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Soon after, there was talk of the Occupy Taksim/Occupy Gezi movement. Sitting at my desk in Ottawa, it is unclear to me whether this handle originated somewhere on the web as a very catchy hashtag or whether it was originally promoted by the protestors themselves. Origins aside, Hurriyet is reporting on their English website that presently the protestors are now identifying with the Occupy movement. This pains me since this is not a protest model that will likely lead to a valuable outcome.

A bit of history: What began as Occupy Wall Street in New York in 2011, quickly transformed into an international protest movement with Occupy protests being set up in cities around the globe. There were few commonalities among these protests other than a general call for greater income equality, a commitment to non-violence, a strong aversion to hierarchical organization within the movement itself, and an uncanny ability to attract media attention. However, with a lack of leadership and a firm policy agenda to advance, the Occupy love-ins degenerated into shantytowns that marred often previously pristine public spaces and that unfortunately, as time wore on, attracted larger and larger proportions of hooligans and extremists. Today, the Occupy movement has largely faded from public consciousness. It has made little lasting impact other than introducing the catchphrase “We are the 99 percent.”

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