CENTCOM aims to limit the imminent Turkish-Syrian operation in Syria, but its actions reflect a bigger problem in US civil-military relations.
In 1948, Harry S Truman, Democrat and father of the US’ containment policy towards the Soviet Union, ordered perhaps the biggest airlift in human history to supply West Berlin against the Soviet Union blockade and founded the NATO alliance. Some 73 years later, under a Democrat president, US army officials opened US-controlled airspace in Syria for Russia to stop a fellow NATO ally. One wonders if Truman would be turning in his grave.
On October 28, 2021, Russia deployed a SU-35 fighter jet from its Hmeimim airbase in Syria’s west to Qamishli airbase in northeast Syria. This move was surprising as the airspace in the east of the country is controlled by the US, according to an agreement reached between both nations. After the deployment, the Russian fighter jet conducted a flight near the frontline in Tal Tamr, further indicating the American consent for Russia entering the airspace.
The Russian military also conducted a military drill with helicopters and artillery in Ayn al Arab. The timing of this American green light to Russia is critical as it is happening as a joint operation of the Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army appears to be imminent.
While Russia protects the YPG militarily, US forces in Syria have neither the permission nor the territorial presence to prevent a new military operation. Russia’s ability to protect the YPG east of the Euphrates is limited. Even though Russia has units deployed in the region, it does not control the airspace, and American fighter jets won’t block the Turkish air force.
YPG is the Syrian wing of the PKK which is recognised as a terror organisation by Turkey, the US, and the EU.
By opening the airspace to Russia, US CENTCOM officials are looking to block Turkey’s air superiority by using the Russian air force and prevent a new Turkish-Syrian military operation.
What may come as a shock for many is in reality just another step in an ongoing trend. In 2019, the US president ordered the military to withdraw and the Syrian National Army and the Turkish Armed Forces launched the second part of Operation Peace Spring to liberate the town of Manbij from the YPG. At that time, US CENTCOM officials decided to follow another policy. US soldiers abruptly handed over their bases to the Russian army. With this move, the Russian army deployed forces in front of the military operation and prevented further incursion.
Russia also deployed its forces to the east of the Euphrates and filled the void left by the US. Rather than see Turkish and Syrian forces in Manbij, US CENTCOM officials handed the bulk of YPG-held areas to Russia.
As in 2019, US CENTCOM officials gained nothing from Russia in return for their generous gift. So why is CENTCOM providing Russia with such benefits to stop a fellow NATO ally?
State of civil-military relations
The reasons why Harry S Truman may be turning in his grave are many, but the most important ones are the decreasing control the US administration has over the Pentagon, American patron-client relations, and the personal career prospects of CENTCOM officials.
First, over the past few decades, the Pentagon has managed to establish a certain amount of autonomy. The US army controls the information reaching the White House – and doesn’t even hesitate to lie to the president.
Especially during the Trump administration, US CENTCOM established greater independence. As President Trump did not bother a whole lot with details, CENTCOM officials would mainly do things of their own volition in Syria. The president’s special envoy, James Jeffrey, as well as the US State Department were often sidelined by CENTCOM and seen as unimportant. CENTCOM acted on its own and created facts on the ground while diplomats were negotiating for something else. Moreover, CENTCOM actively torpedoed deals signed by the US Secretary of State regarding Manbij and even played off EUCOM regarding the safe-zone mechanism with Turkey.
Second, all patron-client relationships are complex and difficult. While patrons usually determine political goals and steps, in some cases, clients manage to convince their patrons of their own agenda. In the case of YPG-CENTCOM relations, the client is setting the agenda.
CENTCOM officials have embodied their client’s wishes; they are working not in the interest of the US public, but of their client. Opening airspace or handing over a US military base to Russia for nothing in return are good examples. While the US wins nothing, the YPG hopes to survive.
What makes all of this more tragicomical is that US military personnel have historically accused American diplomats of granting the wishes of other countries ahead of the interests of the US public. In the case of Syria and US CENTCOM, the situation is the opposite. US CENTCOM officials have become tools in the strategy of the YPG.
Lastly, some former and current US CENTCOM officials see their personal careers directly linked to the survival and success of the YPG. First and foremost, Brett McGurk, the mind behind the idea to partner with the YPG needs the YPG to survive and live if he wants to climb the career ladder. His current position as the Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa of the US may become endangered if the YPG fails.
After his debacle in Iraq with Nuri al Maliki, he needs the YPG to survive. In this line, McGurk has long been lobbying in Washington to make a deal with Russia in Syria that would guarantee the survival of the YPG. According to rumours in Washington, this idea is heavily opposed by other parts of the US bureaucracy and despite some initial steps, has not materialised until now.
The US CENTCOM decision to open airspace to Russia in Syria to block Turkey and the Syrian Interim Government is not in the interest of the US public. While the aim of this move may be to stop a new military operation, in reality it may only result in giving Russia more leverage in the negotiations with Turkey – a great service to Vladimir Putin.