On Thursday, American forces in Syria bombed pro-regime Syrian forces, killing up to 100 of Assad’s militiamen. The American use of force seems to have been in response to the Syrian forces’ attempt to seize territory and oil fields from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) around Deir el-Zor. When the pro-Assad forces moved T-55 and T-72 tanks east of the Euphrates (a de facto dividing line in the area) and began hitting SDF bases with artillery, the Americans responded with air strikes and artillery of their own – both of which apparently inflicted a large number of casualties very quickly.
The Russians immediately denied any role behind what was apparently a prodding maneuver or an attempt to gain back some territory for the Assad regime. The commanding American general accepted the Russian statement, saying “Just as the coalition does not direct the operations of the SDF, the Russians do not direct operations of the Syrian regime.”
As any student of politics and war knows, deterrent threats must be clearly communicated and credible if they are to have any hope of success. The American action around Deir el Zor thus served to greatly bolster American deterrent threats aimed at averting attacks on its forces or that of its allies in Syria. If the Syrians, Russians, Turks and others were unsure about Washington’s willingness to protect its soldiers and allies in the Syrian theater, they now have a better idea.
Deterrence and threat in Syria especially remain a lot more complicated than this, however. People rightly wonder if the United States and Russia are threatening to attack each other, or if Turkey is really threatening to go to war with the United States’ forces in the area. Surely any of these scenarios appear mad to everyone involved?
For some insight into the issue, we can turn to Professor Thomas Schelling’s work on deterrence and conflict – insights on Cold War dynamics which won Dr. Schelling the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics. To begin with, Schelling observes that “A country can threaten to stumble into a war even if it cannot credibly threaten to invite one.” He explains further that “We often talk as though a ‘deterrent threat’ was a credible threat to launch a disastrous war coolly and deliberately in response to some enemy transgression… [but] The choice is unlikely to be one between everything and nothing.
The question is really: Is the United States [or another country] likely to do something that is fraught with the danger of war, something that could lead – through a compounding of actions and reactions, of calculations and miscalculations, of alarms and false alarms, of commitments and challenges – to a major war?”
To bring this back to the Syrian context, neither the United States nor Russia can credibly threaten war against each other, especially over limited strategic interests for both in Syria. What they can threaten, however, are immediate reactions to tactical battlefield moves that in turn engender serious risks of escalation towards unintended war. As they did countless times during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, they dance this dance closer and closer to the precipice of a direct conflict neither can credibly be willing to start, then de-escalate away from the brink for at least a while.
A similar logic prevails with Turkey and the United States. Turkey cannot credibly threaten to go to war against the United States due to U.S. support for the Kurdish-led SDF. What they can threaten, however, are accidents that contain within them the potential for unwanted escalation to war. The United States can threaten, even more credibly, the same should Turkish forces attack areas where American troops are present.
This is why Turkey will not likely attack Manbij or similar areas, whatever the rhetoric coming from Ankara. At the same time, none of the actors involved in Syria wish to back down due to the loss in credibility this would entail. As Schelling describes, “It would be possible to get into a situation in which either side felt that to yield now would create such an asymmetrical situation, would be such a gratuitous act of surrender, that whoever backed down could not persuade anybody that he wouldn’t yield again tomorrow and the day after.”
All of these points apply to areas where the United States has already committed troops, but not areas like Afrin in northwest Syria where they did not. Again, Schelling’s observations about the Cold War seem just as applicable here: “…issues are decided not by who can bring the most force to bear in a locality, or on a particular issue, but by who is eventually willing to bring more force to bear or able to make it appear that more is forthcoming…”
With no troops in Afrin, the Americans could not credibly deter the Turkish invasion of that area, even with a threat of accidental conflict. Since Turkey was also able to signal more determination in Afrin, it then made little sense for the Americans to waste much effort trying to reverse it. Instead, they choose to concentrate on blocking any Turkish, or Russian/Syrian/Iranian designs on other areas in Syria where they do have a presence and a credible deterrent threat.
The Americans need to remain in places like Manbij, Kobane and Jaziree in order to buttress their best anti-ISIS Syrian ally (the SDF), as well as to potentially block Russian and Iranian designs for these areas. With Turkey having been at best unhelpful in Syria, given its support of various Jihadi groups (including ISIS at one time before 2014), the SDF remains the only choice for Washington. The Americans thus intend to communicate their commitment to this choice clearly, while Turkey and others look for any loopholes outside this commitment — such as the hapless region of Afrin.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.