By Paul R. Pillar
The conflict in Syria, complex even by the standard of civil wars, has not presented U.S. policymakers with anything close to a clear opportunity to weigh in on the side of good guys against bad ones. There have been too many bad guys on multiple sides of this war.
The understanding that the United States reached last month with Turkey, according to which the latter evidently agreed to focus more on countering the so-called Islamic State or ISIS as distinct from its other objectives in Syria, would appear to have simplified a bit the lines of contention in the war from the U.S. point of view. But only a bit, if that. Turkish military operations in the area since announcement of the agreement with the United States have focused at least as much on Kurdish militias as on ISIS.
A prominent feature of the U.S.-Turkish accord is the declared intention of both governments to exclude ISIS from a zone along the border area of northern Syria. Given continued uncertainties about Turkish priorities, major questions persist about just what this zone entails. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front has expressed its own uncertainties about this.
An even bigger question is: if this zone is not to be a depopulated no-man’s land, then who will control it and administer it? The ludicrously few vetted “moderates” trained with U.S. help are in no position to do so, and reportedly part of the understanding with the Turks was that Kurdish militias were not going to be allowed to move into any vacuum in the area in question.
A look at a map shows the prospective zone to be a useful plug of a gap in a cordon sanitaire along the northern border of Syria – useful from the U.S. point of view in reducing the ability of radicals from abroad, including from the West, to move into the…