Public Policy

Would Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Drive the U.S. Forward or Backward?


The Trump administration’s budget for fiscal year 2019 includes $200 billion in federal funding for infrastructure projects, which is intended to stimulate state and private sector investments to make up a total of $1.5 trillion over a decade. The plan for infrastructure radically changes how infrastructure investments have been funded in the past, including more skin in the game for states, tax-exempt bonds for private investors and the elephant in the room – a higher federal gasoline tax.

It’s a big plan spread out over a long period, with many top-line elements that will determine the ultimate outcome yet to be defined, much less agreed to by Congress. What’s more, while the initial spending numbers being kicked around suggest some paths forward, how the projects would end up being financed could dramatically shift overall economic outcomes. For example, if the projects are mostly debt financed, then the economic drag created by higher government deficits could potentially more than offset any economic benefit, according to Kimberly Burham, managing director of legislation and special projects at the Penn Wharton Budget Model (PWBM). If instead the projects were funded by a gasoline tax — some proposals for a 25-cent per gallon increase have been floated — then the economic impact could be quite positive.

Additionally, for it all to work well, several stars have to align, such as better-written contracts for public-private partnerships to ensure feasibility and easier regulation while ensuring enforcement of whatever rules apply, say experts. It’s all far from assured, with many open questions about crucial details. 

“[The Trump plan] flips the script from what we’ve seen in this country from the New Deal forwards,” said Kevin Heaslip, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech University, whose specialties include transportation engineering and urban transportation planning. He referred to the federal Highway Trust Fund that raises funding for transportation projects through gasoline and diesel taxes, and typically disburses 80% of road transportation and mass transit project costs to states. “Federal intervention [as a]driver of infrastructure is just not going to be the way that it used to be, if this plan gets enacted.”

Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering at Duke University, agreed with Heaslip. But he noted that the federal government has been promoting alternatives to the traditional ways of financing infrastructure projects for some time. He recalled that the ratio of federal-state funding was 90:10 for the interstate highway system, which the Highway Trust Fund was originally created to finance. That funding ratio was also a way “to entice the states to get on board,” he said.

And before even getting to fundamental questions such as how much appetite states and private investors might have for arrangements being floated, the Trump infrastructure plan could increase the federal debt anywhere from point 0.4% to 0.9% or almost a full percent by 2027, according to a study by the PWBM. That could cause businesses to anticipate higher taxes over time, and thus constrain their investments, said Burham. However, by 2037, that debt could be between 0.4% lower and 0.6% larger, depending on how the plan is financed, the study noted.

Heaslip, Petroski and Burham, discussed the Trump infrastructure investment plan in separate interviews on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to Heaslip and Petroski using the player at the top of this page. You can listen to Burham using the player directly below.) 

Alternative Funding Mechanisms

The Highway Trust Fund has targeted total outlays of $54 billion for road transportation and mass transit projects in 2017 and 2018. Its principal source of funds is the gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon. But that tax rate has not been raised since 1993, even as all 50 states and the District of Columbia levy their own gasoline taxes (averaging 33.56 cents, according to the latest tally by the American Petroleum Institute.) The Fund’s revenues have been hurt also by the increasing use of hybrid, electric and other fuel-efficient vehicles, said Petroski.

Burham noted that the Trump administration has said that it is willing to consider a gas tax to fund its infrastructure spending plan. She said the PWBM plans to publish an analysis soon of the likely outcomes if the plan is indeed funded by a gas tax increase. “We think that will show more positive economic effects because you won’t have the drag of the debt influencing investors and workers,” she added. Burham said she did not expect a tax increase to result in reduced gasoline consumption, “but [it] could cause some belt tightening by some people.”

Among the alternatives the federal government has pushed is a shift to a “user tax” where drivers pay gasoline taxes by the miles they drive, and not by the gallons of gasoline they buy, said Petroski. He noted that Oregon has been testing that under a trial program called OReGO that it launched in July 2015. California also ran a pilot program to test such user taxes. “The federal government has been incentivizing other states and even municipalities to try out something like this,” said Petroski. “I think the handwriting has been on the wall that the federal government would like to get out of funding infrastructure.” 

Heaslip noted that per-mile taxes like the one in Oregon will not suffice to meet the huge capital investment needs for infrastructure projects. Funding would get harder for projects that have relatively lower demand, he noted. If you have the Capital Beltway around [Washington,] D.C., or a major interstate highway, you have a lot of demands on those roads. But who’s going to pay for upgrades on Broad Street in Philadelphia or other places where you just don’t have the demands or the pricing mechanisms?”

Role for the Private Sector

According to Heaslip, states have mostly saved their monies for operations and maintenance of their transportation infrastructure systems, and they would have to create new revenue streams for additional projects.

The private sector would also have to be tapped, therefore, to bridge the funding gap, but the returns on such investments have to be sufficiently attractive. The Trump plan includes a $6 billion proposal “to create flexibility and broaden eligibility” to expand the use of tax-exempt private activity bonds, or PABs, in order to leverage private financing for infrastructure projects.

According to Heaslip, “The question is: Is getting one dollar for every four dollars you put up if you’re a private company worth the investment in building or putting up capital to build infrastructure?” He noted that U.S. infrastructure projects have attracted investments from Spain, Australia and China.

Asset recycling by the federal government is another way to raise funds, but they tend to be one-off options, said Heaslip. He pointed to proposals to sell the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Dulles Airport and Reagan National Airport to private entities.

The private parties that would eventually maintain those assets have to be “good stewards,” and rules and regulations have to be strictly enforced in managing such infrastructure, said Petroski. “One of the reasons our infrastructure has deteriorated to the point it has is there hasn’t been strict enforcement,” he added. “If it’s not done to the quality that it was contracted for, there often is not sufficient penalty for that. That attitude has to change, and that would be a big way of improving our infrastructure, essentially without it costing us anything.”

The plan has also stirred debate on private cars versus mass transit. Advocates of a new, $13-billion rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York are upset that the project did not find mention in Trump’s budget speech. The focus is on which is a higher priority for investments – transit or cars, said Heaslip. He noted that funding for transportation projects has been cut, especially since $50 billion of the $200 billion in Trump’s infrastructure plan has been allocated for rural block grants. Here again, the upshot is that private sector investors have to step in, he said. “What this plan is saying is: We want to invest in highway transit, and we really want somebody to come in and privatize public transit and Amtrak.”

Another upshot of the Trump plan is that municipalities have to take a closer look at raising funds for their infrastructure projects. “Municipalities have a lot of access to revenue through sales taxes, visitor taxes and through hotels and so forth,” said Petroski. “It’s a question of how you choose to spend it. And this [budget] bill will force decisions like that if [the Trump plan] becomes a reality.”

Selling naming rights to private companies could be another source of funding, such as in the case of the AT&T Station (formerly Pattison Station) on SEPTA’s Broad Street Line in Philadelphia, said Heaslip. “Maybe we’ll auction off rights to transit stations like we do on stadiums, and that’s one source of revenue,” he said. “We have to be really creative in how we move forward because the big federal government checks are not going to be coming like they used to. It opens up some challenges, but it also opens up some opportunities as well.”

Three Impact Scenarios

The Trump infrastructure plan could have positive or negative effects, depending on how its various parts are implemented. Burham emphasized “the net change to infrastructure spending,” because along with the $200 billion allocation, there are major cuts in the budget to other federal infrastructure spending programs.

In the absence of specific details on funding for the Trump infrastructure plan, the PWBM constructed three scenarios. Its study, which is based on the FY 2018 budget, found that on net, the 2018 budget either reduced infrastructure spending by $55 billion or increased it by $15 billion, depending on how the projections are factored in.

The first option constructed by the PWBM assumes that while the federal government spends $200 billion, it doesn’t stimulate any additional spending by the private sector or state and local governments. In this option, the fact that the plan is deficit-financed translates into higher federal debt. “There is no improvement to GDP or other economic indicators except for the fact that you are left with higher levels of debt,” said Burham.

In the second option, the PWBM assumes that as planned, the federal government’s $200 billion attracts $1.3 trillion from the states and private parties to make up for a total of $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure spending. It also assumes that user fees will finance those projects. Burham called Option 2 the PWBM’s “rosy scenario,” where the investment “makes the private sector and workers so much more productive that more than offsets the impact of increased debt, because you get more economic growth.”

In the third option, the PWBM study treats user fees as tolls, where those paid by businesses would be eligible for tax deductions. The PWBM’s third option is less rosy than the second option, but Burham called it “a realistic scenario.”

Much of the impact also depends on how fast the infrastructure money is spent, said Burham, pointing to the costs of project delays. She noted that Trump also plans to ease some regulations governing infrastructure projects, and that authorities could also scout around for shovel-ready projects.

Unanswered Questions

Burham expected the current trend of states financing the bulk of their infrastructure projects to continue. She said it is not clear if federal funding for those would actually result in increased total outlays. “Generally when the [federal] government gives states additional dollars for infrastructure, they tend to spend a lot of that on other programs,” she said. “So it’s an open question as to how much of this $1.5 trillion will be new spending on infrastructure and how much of it will go to programs that would have happened anyway.”

Burham said additional information is needed to capture a more complete picture of the actual impact of the infrastructure spending, and listed some:

• “Will it be deficit financed or funded by some sort of new tax? That will have a big impact on the economy as well and economic growth and wages and everything else.

•  “We need to get a better sense of the type of infrastructure projects that are planned to be funded because that will give us a sense of how quickly spending will occur as well as how quickly infrastructure projects can be built.

• “We need to get an idea of how effective reducing regulations will be in speeding up these infrastructure projects to come online. The faster they come online, the more economic growth there is.

• “There’s a tradeoff if there are other, current infrastructure programs that are being cut. Are we trading something that is maybe more efficient? Are we getting something more efficient than old programs? Are we losing something in those programs [that will be eliminated]?”

Designing Contracts that Work

All said, the devil is in the paperwork, it appears. Private sector investments through public-private partnerships don’t necessarily work well, said a caller from San Antonio, TX, on the radio show. He pointed to the recent bankruptcies of private operators of a toll way in Indiana and State Highway 130 in Texas. (It has since emerged from bankruptcy.)

Petroski explained how things went wrong with the Indiana toll road project for example. “In most of these public-private partnerships, a lot of control is given to the private party,” he said. “In the case of the Indiana road, [the private operator] kept raising tolls and that drives down usage.” Cars and trucks that previously used the toll way switched to two parallel roads that do not have tolls, but they also did not have the requisite capacity for that surge in traffic. “So it not only affected the revenue of a private partnership, but it also affected the wear and tear on the public roads that were not getting any revenue from users.” Petroski advised law makers to write contracts “very carefully” to protect both the private partners and the public interest.

Heaslip noted that public-private partnership contracts in Virginia and in Maryland that were “put together very carefully” have worked out well. Ensuring the financial feasibility of the project is crucial, he emphasized. “It seems like the problems occur when the investment of the private company is not making a good return,” he said. “It takes a good analysis [by both the public and private partners] in order to determine: Is this piece of infrastructure something that can generate revenue that will pay a return, and keep the private entity involved, have them continue to maintain the roadways or whatever piece of infrastructure it is? If there is no return on it, you’re going to see these things happen, and Indiana and Texas happen over and over again.”

The jokers in the pack

The tiny new party that may hold the key to Italy’s election

How Italy could end up turning right

RAFFAELE FITTO is a man in a hurry. The black limousine with darkened windows hurtling through the gathering darkness hits 160kph (100mph) as it rushes him to his next campaign stop. With barely two weeks to go before Italy’s general election, Mr Fitto has just inaugurated his party’s headquarters in Bari, the regional capital of his native Puglia, the “heel” of Italy’s boot, in the deep south. Yet the party he leads, which was founded only in December with the odd name of Noi con l’Italia (NcI, roughly: We’re with Italy), could make a crucial difference to the outcome of the vote on March 4th.

The main pollsters agree that the only electoral alliance with a chance of winning an absolute majority in the next parliament is the one forged on the right by Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister. Vowing to clamp down on illegal immigration and introduce a flat-rate income tax, Mr Berlusconi and his allies have gained in the polls as the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), led by another former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has lost ground. If none of the contenders wins an outright majority, a broad coalition, perhaps led by the incumbent prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, an urbane and competent man who seems broadly acceptable to almost everyone, may be the only way to make Italy governable. But the right still has a chance.

The last polls published before a pre-election gag rule came into effect on February 17th all implied a hung parliament. But under Italy’s new electoral rules almost 40% of the seats will be decided on a first-past-the-post basis, the rest by proportional representation (PR). And, notes Antonio Noto of Noto Sondaggi, a polling firm, the national percentages given by the polls are only really useful for predicting the PR section of the ballot. Analysing the most recent polling data, Salvatore Vassallo of the University of Bologna concluded that the right was ahead in so many winner-takes-all constituencies that it was likely to gain a majority in the Senate (the upper house), and was a mere four seats short of doing the same in the Chamber of Deputies.

That, however, ignores yet another variable: the 30% of Italian voters who remain undecided.

Soundings by Mr Noto found less than one in six of those leaned to the right.

Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party enjoys support throughout the country, but—the polls suggest—only about 17% of decided voters back it. For victory, it depends on allies with strong regional bases, who are expected to do well in first-past-the-post seats in their core areas: the Northern League with around 13%; the Brothers of Italy, a small party with neo-fascist roots that is strong around Rome; and, in the south where the pollsters agree this election will be decided, the NcI. An alliance of tiny groups, mostly led by former members of the once-dominant Christian Democrat party whose symbol features prominently in its logo, the NcI is the joker in the pack of this election.

For Mr Fitto, the right’s only real opponent in the south is the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). The NcI’s strong point is that, unlike the M5S, its candidates are well-known to their electorates. They are men—mostly men—who have held office locally and can depend on goodwill built up over years, even decades, of distributing jobs and contracts to local people in the needy south.

At Corato, a town of fewer than 50,000 inhabitants where the NcI’s candidate was mayor for ten years, he and Mr Fitto, who was governor of Puglia, drew a crowd of well over 500 on a freezing night. Candidate-recognition is especially important in the first-past-the-post contests.

The NcI is contesting 34 seats, of which Mr Fitto reckons they can win half. In the PR section of the ballot, parties need 3% of the national vote to qualify for entry into parliament. But even if the NcI failed to reach the 3% threshold, its votes would then go to the rest of the alliance.

Mr Fitto dismisses such talk. “The polls show we’re almost at 3% and we’ve barely started campaigning,” he says. Even at just 3% the NcI would gain another 18 seats, giving it 30-40 of the 945 in the two houses of parliament. That may seem insignificant. But Italy’s next government could well have a wafer-thin majority and ex-Christian Democrats—natural centrists and often ideologically flexible—are renowned for the ease with which they shift their allegiances and the skill with which they exploit their position, close to the fulcrum of Italian politics. One NcI bigwig kept Romano Prodi’s last fragile, centre-left government on tenterhooks for months before helping to bring it down in 2008. Another one changed his affiliation no fewer than five times in the last parliament.

“We could be decisive for everything,” says Mr Fitto.

Here’s a Change: U.S. Borrowing Costs Among Highest in Developed World

The power of higher U.S. yields to shift markets is evident in things that haven’t happened in nearly two decades

By Richard Barley

Ten-year Government Bond Yields

As if there weren’t enough evidence that the ground is shifting in markets, here’s something that hasn’t happened in nearly two decades: America is paying more to borrow than Australia.

For the first time since 2000, U.S. 10-year yields, at 2.88%, are above those of Australia, at 2.84%, notes ADMISI, a brokerage unit of agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland . At first glance, this makes sense. Benchmark yields have converged as the U.S. Federal Reserve has raised rates while the Reserve Bank of Australia has stood pat. Indeed, the Fed is treading a lonely path, with other central banks still far behind in the policy stakes.

For investors, however, this turns a familiar backdrop upside down. Australia and New Zealand have for decades been the highest-yielding government-bond markets among advanced economies, with higher rates needed thanks to sizable current account deficits and higher inflation in the past. But now New Zealand, with a 10-year yield of 2.96%, is only just stopping the U.S. from claiming the high-yielder crown.

The Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C. Benchmark yields have converged as the Fed has raised rates. Photo: Stephen Voss for The Wall Street Journal 

And what might be more remarkable is what the U.S. dollar is doing at the same time. The last time Australian and U.S. yields crossed, the greenback was rising; now it is falling even as U.S. assets should appear more attractive thanks to higher yields.

The benign explanation is that better-than-expected growth outside the U.S. has buoyed other currencies against the dollar: U.S. investors are looking for opportunities globally rather than domestically.

Yield spread of 10-year Australian
government bonds over U.S. Treasurys 


In the case of places like Australia, the story for now is about yield convergence, but it may also eventually be about higher yields generally. Despite differences in monetary policies, higher U.S. yields may lift rates elsewhere thanks to the global heft of the Treasury market. At the same time, other central banks are starting to move gradually away from loose monetary policy.

The less comfortable explanation is that rising Treasury yields and a softer dollar represent a necessary discount on U.S. assets as investors worry about the consequences of tax cuts and higher spending on the economy. Treasurys and the dollar might just be two sides of the same coin for now.

In Syria, Alliances Shift Again

By Xander Snyder

The nature of the conflict in Syria is changing shape again, with two important developments taking place over the past week. First, Turkey proposed cooperation with the United States in Afrin and Manbij, both of which are held by Syrian Kurds, whom the Turks consider hostile forces. Though no formal agreement has been reached, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the U.S. would work with Turkey to coordinate their actions in Syria. Second, the Syrian Kurds appear to be willing to work with the Syrian regime against the Turkish assault on Afrin. Pro-regime forces reportedly entered Afrin on Feb. 20, a move that would require coordination with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which controls the region.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has downplayed Turkey’s involvement in Afrin, pitching the invasion as both a necessary and low-cost military operation. But the involvement of pro-regime forces changes what will be required of Turkey to take control of the region. So far, Turkey has used a minimal number of its own forces in Afrin and mostly relied on the Free Syrian Army and other anti-Assad groups. But with pro-Assad forces now taking part in the conflict, Turkey will need to do more if it wants a successful outcome.
Turkey’s Breaking Point
Turkey will have to consider how much blood the Turkish people are willing to shed to take Afrin and the northern corridor in Syria that extends from the border to the Euphrates. It’s hard to know what the breaking point is for the Turks, but we can look to Turkey’s last major military intervention for clues. In its invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Turkey incurred roughly 570 combat deaths. With a total force of 60,000, that is a 1 percent fatality rate for a monthlong operation that secured Turkey’s control of a substantial portion of the island.

Turkey recently said approximately 30 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the monthlong operation in Syria, though this number may be understated. In late January, Haberturk, a Turkish news agency, said 6,400 Turkish soldiers would take part in Operation Olive Branch. Other sources, however, report that Turkey has upward of 15,000-20,000 troops deployed at the Afrin border. (There are also 25,000-30,000 Free Syrian Army militants acting as Turkey’s proxies in Syria.) If the official fatality numbers are to be believed, the Turkish army has incurred a death rate of 0.15 percent to 0.47 percent, well under the death rate in the Cyprus operation, which did not face widespread public backlash. The difference between Cyprus and Afrin, however, is that after a month in Afrin, Turkey doesn’t seem close to securing its military objective.
Syria, the Kurds and a Possible Settlement
Bashar Assad’s goal in Syria now is to regain control of as much territory as possible. With Turkey joining the fray in Afrin and inching closer to Aleppo, a critical city over which Syrian forces have already fought a bloody battle, Assad has a choice: either escalate his military conflict with Turkey and its proxies, or come to a settlement. To win a military victory in the region, Assad would need to move his forces along the southern edge of Afrin until they reach the Turkish border in the west and then turn farther south until pro-Turkish forces in Afrin and Idlib – a region largely controlled by another Turkish proxy, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – are surrounded. Assad will try to encircle Turkish proxies in Idlib and cut off their supply routes to Turkey.

From the regime’s perspective, therefore, working with the Kurds makes sense. It can use the 8,000-10,000 YPG fighters in Afrin to repel the Turkish invasion and avoid expending its own resources. It also makes sense for the Kurds, who are facing a Turkish assault with few allies, since the U.S. has said it will not support the YPG in Afrin.

But Turkey also has plans to surround the YPG and cut off access to its allies. On Feb. 20, Erdogan announced that the Turkish military will in the next several days attempt to envelop Afrin, blocking the YPG from receiving support from pro-Assad forces. Turkey and Assad are therefore applying the same strategy to different regions, while trying to avoid a confrontation that could draw in more outside powers and escalate the conflict.

This situation could give rise to a tactical settlement in Afrin. Faced with the risk of a far bloodier battle than it anticipated, Turkey may be willing to halt its advance if the Syrian regime – and by extension, Iran and Russia – agrees to move the Kurds out of Afrin and Manbij to an area east of the Euphrates, and if it could also guarantee to control the Kurds’ actions thereafter. The Syrian government could then take control of areas that have been held by semi-autonomous Kurdish entities for several years. The Syrian Kurds might also agree to this arrangement – it would allow them to avoid even more bloodshed, and they could negotiate a role for themselves in the Syrian government. Iran, an Assad ally, might also accept an agreement because it would reverse Turkey’s advance east. Such a settlement wouldn’t end the Syrian war, but it would help temper the conflict in Afrin.

The success of this type of settlement depends on whether Turkey would be satisfied with an agreement to relocate the Kurds. If Turkey’s ultimate goal in Operation Olive Branch is to secure greater strategic depth – and we believe it is – rather than to simply clear the YPG presence in Afrin as Ankara claims, then such a settlement will be a harder pill to swallow. But the Turkish public may not tolerate a sustained, costly military operation in Syria. If Turkey does agree to a settlement, it is safe to conclude that Turkey’s rise as a regional power will be accompanied by some setbacks.
Russia and Iran Compete for Control
For its part, Russia wants a settlement that would leave Assad strong and willing to follow Russia’s – not Iran’s – lead. This might involve Assad regaining control of Afrin. Russian President Vladimir Putin would get to declare victory and get Russian forces out before too many more get killed. Russia has already made one proposal that involved the handover of Afrin to Damascus, although it was rejected by the Kurds.

But Russia has also signaled that it is willing to allow a Turkish presence in Afrin. Putin was willing to work with Turkey during Operation Olive Branch, allowing it access to Afrin’s airspace. Erdogan also said he spoke to Putin on Feb. 19 and convinced him to prevent the Syrian army from deploying to the region. (So far, only pro-regime militants have reportedly been deployed.) It appears for now that Putin will let the regime fight back against Turkey – but within limits. After all, if a large portion of the Syrian army were to be redeployed, Russia would have to contribute more resources to the offensive in Idlib.

Russia can accept the Turkish presence in Afrin because Russia stands to benefit from the heightening competition between two regional powers that are on opposite sides of the Syrian war: Turkey and Iran. Russia has been tactically cooperating with both, but ultimately it wants neither to emerge from the war in an overwhelmingly powerful position. Right now, Iran has the strongest position in the Middle East, able to wield power in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Russia and Iran both support Assad, but Moscow doesn’t want Tehran to be able to challenge Russian interests either in the Middle East or in the Caucasus.

Luckily for Russia, it can wait longer than Iran can. Every move Turkey makes eastward brings it closer to a confrontation with Iran in Iraq. So long as Turkey and Iran are fighting each other (or each other’s proxies) and stay south of the Greater Caucasus mountain range, Russia can afford to be minimally involved.

Russia and Iran are effectively playing a game of chicken. Russia knows that Iran cannot afford to have Turkey seriously challenge Assad by taking Afrin and thereby surrounding Aleppo. This will force Iran to spend more blood and treasure on halting the advance in Syria, placing further pressure on Iran’s already strained resources. Russia, meanwhile, can continue to provide minimal air support in Syria. Short of a settlement on Afrin between Syria, the YPG and Turkey, Iran will be forced to commit an ever-increasing number of troops and resources to Syria as Turkey conquers new territory.
Testing U.S.-Turkish Relations
The deployment of pro-regime forces to Afrin complicates Turkey’s proposal to work with the U.S. in Afrin and Manbij. Iran’s rising power has brought U.S. and Turkish interests closer together, despite the United States’ longstanding support for the Kurds. The U.S. now has to decide what’s more important: containing Iran, or supporting the Kurds. While this dynamic plays out, the Islamic State remains a threat, leaving the U.S. looking for allies on the ground willing to fight IS.

Underlying all this is a bigger question: What would Russia do if the U.S. were to engage Assad in a large, more protracted fight? With the Syrian government intervening in Afrin, U.S. cooperation with Turkey could bring Washington into direct conflict with Assad. The U.S. is loath to become bogged down in another war in the Middle East and will encourage Turkey to come to an agreement with Assad that lets the U.S. maintain a minimal force there to fight IS. If Turkey wants to press its advantage, rather than suffer what it may perceive as a setback, it will be yet another test of U.S.-Turkish relations.