By Samuel Hickey
There have been reports that John Hannah, a former Cheney aide, may get tapped to be the next US-Syria envoy. Al-Monitor, which broke the story on February 13, focused its narrative on U.S.-Turkey relations, which have sunk to new lows since January 20th with Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” or invasion of Afrin, Syria. The operation is intended to drive the Kurdish YPG, which has played a major role in the US backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), out of Afrin and away from the Turkish border.
John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy (FDD), a D.C. think tank, and previously served as Dick Cheney’s deputy National Security Advisor and then National Security Advisor throughout the Bush administration. Full disclosure, I was an intern at FDD about three years ago which was while John Hannah held his current position there.
The Al-Monitor article quotes former US Ambassador to Turkey and Iraq James Jeffrey who offers his thoughts on how the U.S and Turkey can negotiate a compromise to allow the violence to continue in northern Syria yet maintain both of their strategic interests. “We should find a way to compromise on Manbij, to tell the YPG [that] we are going to stay on for a limited time with our own troops and you have to work out a deal with the Turks to make this something that is no longer an irritant.” Manbij, Syria is close to Afrin and Ankara wants the U.S. to leave and to take it from the Kurds. While it is difficult to confirm Turkish military numbers, they estimate 1,439 terrorists have been “neutralized” since the beginning of the operation; if true, the abandoning of Manbij would yield a similar fate for its inhabitants because clearly Turkey is not discriminating between civilians and combatants.
While the Turkish invasion is a priority for the US, such an appointment would not reflect the current US administration’s thinking on Turkey, NATO, or Kurdish aspirations. Rather it would reflect the administration’s belief that Iran is building a land-bridge from Tehran to Beirut, and any US foreign policy in Syria would address all other actors through this lens.
Hannah’s November 8, 2017, op-ed in Foreign Policy titled, “Does Trump Realize That His New Iran Strategy Could Suffer A Fatal Blow In Syria?” is the all too clear evidence that Hannah would view Syria through a proxy-war with Iran lens, not as a humanitarian nightmare that has created millions of refugees. Hannah also declared the SDF as “the last remaining obstacle to the full-blown realization of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions,” so if his appointment goes through, greater confrontation with Turkey would logically follow. U.S.-Turkey relations are the most dismal since the initial announcement of Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system which caused the most recent NATO consternation.
The thesis of Hannah’s article argues for prolonged US involvement in Syria as defeating Daesh and declaring “Mission Accomplished” is exactly what Hannah believes Iran wants. This would have huge implications for Iraq as their upcoming elections in May will be a key test for US/Iran influence in Baghdad. Hezbollah continues to be cast as a mere front for Iranian influence in Beirut, but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s (KSA) brief abduction of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri must surely level the playing field of Sunni-Shia intervention in Beirut. Contending with Turkey will be the most complex and immediate issue for the next US-Syria envoy as the US’s reputation as a good ally during and after conflict is on the line with the SDF.
Turkey and the Kurds
On April 30, 2017, the Anadolu Agency (AA) – a Turkish state-run news agency – briefly laid out the government’s perspective on U.S. support for the SDF. The thesis: the U.S. is violating Articles 3 & 5 of the NATO treaty; primarily the idea that an attack against one is an attack against them all.
U.S. cooperation with the SDF marked a significant change in the winds of the offensive against Daesh following the Pentagon’s failed effort to arm and train Syrian rebels. U.S. support for the SDF runs deep with U.S. officers embedded within SDF troops to prevent clashes with Turkish armed forces.
Turkey does not see a distinction between the YPG/YPJ/SDF and the PKK in their ideology or in their militaristic efforts within the region. The article cites anonymous Turkish officials acknowledging that U.S. arms ostensibly given to the SDF end up in PKK camps, and that the PKK uses U.S. arms to commit attacks within the Turkish state.
The U.S. reaction: “We carefully monitor where that ammunition goes,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said responding to questions about SDF equipment provided by the U.S. ending up in PKK camps. The U.S. and the SDF argue there is a clear distinction between the YPG/YPJ and the PKK who share the political philosophies of Abdullah Ocalan, but implement his teachings in fundamentally different ways.
Given all of this, Hannah’s appointment would not necessarily mean that US policy in Syria would be less opaque or that confrontation with Tukey would be imminent. On January 14, the US announced that it was creating a 30,000 man force in northern Syria for border security, which preempted “Operation Olive Branch” by a week, was later followed by Secretary Tillerson arguing the issue had been “misportrayed.” Turkish President Erdogan called the force a “terror Army” and Turkish Deputy Prime Minister warned that any American soldiers wearing YPG uniforms are “targets.”
Hannah’s clear appreciation for the SDF might stir up a little back and forth between the US and Turkey, but it would not spark a military confrontation because the US is more concerned with Iran. Belligerent speech has become amazingly common place under the Trump administration.
Likely and unfortunately, the US and Turkey would take the advice of Ambassador Jeffrey who was a career Ambassador at the State department – just as Hannah developed US policy for many years – and offers temperate U.S. advice: avoid a collision of States by leaving the weak to be “neutralized.” The bigger geostrategic goals may end up taking priority over human lives.
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