Turkey and the United States Should Work Together to Avert Disaster in Idlib
Despite their differences, Trump and Erodgan share an interest in avoiding a new humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.
Over the weekend, the Bashar al-Assad regime announced the start of its campaign to retake Syria’s Idlib province—a region home to an estimated 3 million people, including around 1 million displaced from other parts of Syria. Despite years of failed policies, the United States still has tools at its disposal to mitigate what could be a coming humanitarian catastrophe on a larger scale than even the one in Aleppo.
The first challenge with Idlib is that it has become a depository for Assad regime opponents from all over Syria. In recent years, Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, has retaken large areas of the country, particularly focusing on various de-escalation zones in western Syria meant to freeze the fighting between the regime and the rebels. Each campaign has ended with a deal under which the rebels surrender but are allowed safe passage to Idlib. In the coming campaign, there will be no place for them to go, meaning we are likely to see a much uglier fight to the death, which is why there have been reports of the Assad regime seriously considering using chemical weapons. There is a moral imperative for the United States to do what it can to stop or prevent the worst outcomes.
The battle could also result in massive refugee flows into Turkey. In 2016, Turkey and the European Union cut an agreement under which Turkey agreed to host most of the Syrian refugees in exchange for financial support, thus stemming the mass migration to Europe that had been causing significant political tensions and instability. But a massive new flow of refugees could cause the Turks to reconsider, potentially throwing Europe once again into chaos.
Further complicating the matter is that, as U.S. counter-Islamic State envoy Brett McGurk put it, Idlib has become “the largest al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.” The challenge is that al Qaeda is marbled with other less ideological opposition groups that all oppose Assad, and trying to separate them out and eliminate al Qaeda is exceedingly difficult. But the answer is not a highly destructive offensive launched by Assad that would lead to the single worst humanitarian crisis in an already horrible war.
Failure to do anything to stem the offensive in Idlib would undercut what senior U.S. officials now articulate as U.S. policy. The United States seeks the revival and implementation of the Geneva political process, a series of peace talks, to end the war. They insist that Assad must transition from power and that Iran and its proxy forces must leave before U.S. forces withdraw from northeast Syria. These objectives may already be out of reach, but if the United States stands by and allows Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies to march into Idlib, displacing at least hundreds of thousands of people and potentially using chemical weapons, it will only weaken the U.S. position to influence the end state of the Syrian conflict.
The good news is that the United States does have some leverage it can deploy. A fight in Idlib would be much uglier for Assad and his allies than the much smaller-scale offensives of the past few years, and if a viable alternative is available they may choose not to incur this cost. The Russians have also been working hard to rehabilitate Assad’s image and normalize him so that other countries will start to invest in Syria’s reconstruction, as Russia is incapable of financing that type of massive effort. A new massive humanitarian crisis would freeze that effort. U.S. President Donald Trump should utilize the channel of communication that he has established with Russian President Vladimir Putin of to make it clear that the United States will impede every Russian effort to reconstruct Syria if Moscow greenlights Assad’s offensive on greater Idlib, now or in the future. Whether or not this communication from Trump to Putin will change the Russian calculus remains to be seen, but it could be an effective and life-saving use of Trump’s apparent rapport with the Russian president.
More important is the fact that Turkey maintains a military presence in Idlib, and in this case its interests align with those of the United States. By prior agreement with Russia and Iran, Turkey has maintained 12 military observer posts around the province. This limited deployment of Turkish forces has created a deterrent, albeit a shaky one, as the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran do not want to start a direct confrontation with Turkey. Neither Turkey nor the United States wants an ugly new offensive resulting in a humanitarian disaster and massive refugee flows.
Working with Turkey will not be easy. There are still significant tensions with Turkey over the U.S. decision to arm Kurdish fighters to fight the Islamic State. The Turkish military campaign and occupation of Syria’s Kurdish-majority, northwestern region of Afrin has led to mass population expulsion of Kurds. At the Sept. 7 conference in Tehran between Turkey, Russia, and Iran, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted his desire to wage war on U.S. partners in northern and eastern Syria, even as he called for Russia and Iran to restrain Assad in Idlib. And beyond Syria, U.S.-Turkey relations are at a low point—Trump has promised to enforce tariffs and sanctions.
But when it comes to Syria, shifting alliances among foreign powers have been par for the course, and in the case of Idlib, the United States and Turkey find themselves on the same side. Acting together in this region of northwest Syria could be a positive step toward improving broader U.S.-Turkish relations.
With these challenges and opportunities in mind, the United States should pursue two courses of action in Idlib. First, it should continue to create diplomatic top cover for Turkey as it negotiates with Russia, Iran, and the Assad government. So far, the United States has been actively engaged in the situation in greater Idlib and has taken the right steps by making it known, including through a presidential tweet, that there is increased U.S. attention on the crisis there. And the U.S. effort to prioritize the meeting in Geneva on Sept. 14 is another indication of deeper American engagement. Although that meeting produced a document on the path forward for constitutional reform in Syria and for a post-Assad state, there remains a long road ahead to establish a transition mechanism to remove Assad and establish oversight over the regime that supported him throughout the war.
Reports also indicate that the U.S. government is drawing up options for military strikes against the Assad regime not only for its potential use of chemical weapons, but also if it unilaterally launches a ground invasion of greater Idlib outside of an agreement. For the first time in the Syrian conflict, the United States might be willing to act to protect civilian populations in an opposition area, and not simply as a response. However, reports leaked to the media of possible U.S. intentions may not be enough to stop Assad, and therefore Trump should let it be known publicly that Assad and his allies will face potentially severe repercussions if they make war on Idlib.
Second, by buying time for Turkey and its Syrian local partners, the United States should actively encourage and enable Turkish and Syrian rebel military activities against al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and militant Salafist organizations aligned with al Qaeda, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party. Although protecting the civilian population of greater Idlib should be the first priority of the United States in this crisis, the counterterrorism mission is also important, and the United States should take advantage of the opportunity to both rebuild influence among the Syrian opposition and combat the extremist organizations based in this region.
This effort will require real action by Turkey—and even more importantly the opposition forces allied with it in Idlib—to accept primary responsibility for confronting and defeating al Qaeda and dismantling the safe haven that it has built in northwest Syria. The United States should use this period to assess whether it can restart humanitarian, economic, and civil society support for opposition communities and limited military assistance for select vetted local armed groups that faithfully engage in countering al Qaeda and its fellow travelers. Turkish military forces should provide armor, indirect fire, airstrikes, and training and advising for the local Syrian armed opposition willing to confront extremist groups in Idlib. The United States must make clear to Turkey and these opposition groups that this is a high priority, and that if they want U.S. support against Russia and Iran in Idlib, they need to weed out al Qaeda.
If Turkey and the United States collaborate to hold the line in Idlib, it could be the start of greater coordination between the two NATO allies. The United States could then try to look for long-term opportunities to establish social, economic, and security bridges between its zone of control in northern and eastern Syria with the Turkish zone in northern and western Syria, and could create one large U.S.-Turkish zone held outside of the control of the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran. The zone could then potentially be used to apply long-term pressure on Russia to work through the Geneva process to reach an agreement on how to transition power from Assad, pressure Iran and its proxies to withdraw, and therefore set the conditions for the United States to withdraw its forces from Syria.
But even if all of that proves too difficult, at a minimum U.S.-Turkish cooperation is critical to avoiding a humanitarian catastrophe and new refugee crisis while eliminating an al Qaeda safe haven. The United States and Turkey should be able to work together on these very obvious common objectives.
Ilan Goldenberg is the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Twitter: @ilangoldenberg