Turkey’s Intervention in Syria Will Slow Assad, But It Won’t Stop Him

Ankara's latest move might slow the Syrian regime's Russian-backed onslaught on Idlib, but the tyrant will remain on the throne so long as the world turns a blind eye.

An aerial view taken on Feb. 6, 2020, shows smoke billowing from tires burnt by Syrians in an attempt to hinder air strikes.
An aerial view taken on Feb. 6, 2020, shows smoke billowing from tires burnt by Syrians in an attempt to hinder air strikes in the town of Binnish in the country's northwestern province of Idlib. Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

Once again, the international community is wringing its hands as it watches the conflict in Syria escalate. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing toward the Turkish border, entire towns have emptied as hundreds of airstrikes pummel homes in Idlib province for days on end, and direct clashes between NATO member Turkey and the regime of Bashar al-Assad could draw in Russia, the Syrian president’s top backer.

On Monday, forces loyal to Assad fired shells at an observation post manned by Turkish troops, part of a broader cease-fire deal that mandated their presence to check any advances by government and rebel fighters and that has been in tatters for nearly a year now. Ankara responded forcefully, with strikes against Syrian regime targets that Turkey said killed dozens of soldiers, though the figures are likely lower.

Turkish artillery fire supporting rebel defensive positions in the town of Saraqeb briefly prevented its takeover, but the regime’s advance toward strategic territory at the intersection of crucial thoroughfares linking western Syria with the rest of the country ultimately broke through and succeeded in capturing the town.

It would be disingenuous to call the latest flare-up an escalation because half a million people have already fled their homes toward the Turkish border in the last two months of regime and Russian bombardment. Since last April, there have been more than 70 separate attacks on medical facilities. Entire towns have been abandoned. Hundreds of people have been killed.

The Turkish intervention does add an element of instability to an already toxic mix. Ankara is unlikely to clash directly with Moscow; there are too many joint interests, including energy pipelines, a nuclear reactor that is being built by Russia, and an absence of Western allies after months of tensions with NATO culminating in the deployment of the Russian S-400 missile defense system in Turkey.

But in the short term, Turkey’s involvement may place a temporary hold on the slaughter going on in Idlib.

Halting the Syrian advance would offer a temporary respite from a humanitarian catastrophe. Since last spring, 800,000 people have been displaced. Turkey already hosts close to 4 million Syrian refugees, a fact that has proved politically costly for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in parliamentary and mayoral elections in the country. No more will be allowed in.

The situation is particularly dire due to winter conditions and overcrowding at the border as columns of civilians pack their belongings and flee certain death. Their destitution is profound, as most have been displaced from other parts of Syria, often in surrender deals that forced them to give up their homes or face retribution by the regime—in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Daraa, and elsewhere. Nearly half of Idlib’s 3 million civilians are children.

Idlib is one of the last remaining areas outside of government control, in addition to parts of western Aleppo, a large tract abutting the northern border that is under the control of Turkish-backed proxy forces, as well as Kurdish areas that have a symbolic government presence. Idlib is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al Qaeda affiliate.

The possibility of a comprehensive peace deal in Idlib was always remote, as was a takeover by Turkey’s Syrian proxies, who are busy pursuing their benefactors’ strategic interests rather than those of the revolution, fighting Kurdish militias or being sent farther afield to Libya. Ankara’s intervention will strengthen its geopolitical hand and slow Assad’s advance.

But Turkey’s intervention belies another, deeper reality: The crisis in Syria is not over. The war has not been won.

The misery and suffering in Idlib have distracted from an economic unraveling in government-controlled areas, which has left great poverty in its wake. The Syrian pound has collapsed in value from around 47 pounds to the dollar at the start of the uprising in 2011 to 1,200 per dollar now. The crisis has been exacerbated by protests, economic collapse, and a dollar shortage in neighboring Lebanon, where many wealthy Syrians kept their savings. Ordinary families are unable to buy fuel to warm their homes in a tough winter.

Assad has reclaimed much of the country with Russian backing in campaigns of great cruelty, featuring starvation sieges, relentless artillery and aerial bombardment, and even chemical attacks, followed by surrender deals. But these military victories have not led to an easing of economic hardship or the regime’s recovery from its pariah status.

Sanctions imposed by the U.S. government and European Union remain in place, and Congress recently passed a further set of tight sanctions in response to the regime’s war crimes as part of a defense spending bill that incorporated elements of the so-called Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, named after a military photographer who smuggled out photos of citizens killed under torture.The misery and suffering in Idlib have distracted from an economic unraveling in government-controlled areas, which has left great poverty in its wake.

Hundreds of billions of dollars of reconstruction aid are unlikely to begin flowing into Syria without at least the veneer of progress on questions of political reform. A constitutional committee whose makeup took years of negotiations to decide has yet to produce meaningful results, and its ponderousness is being supplanted by developments on the ground. Though it is currently the only game in town as an avenue for meaningful change, progress is too slow to matter in the short term.

The absence of reconstruction money, tight sanctions, and overall economic instability strike at the heart of the Assad regime’s ability to function as a state and is a betrayal of the constituencies that stood by it against its enemies.

Meanwhile, rebels have suffered from a complete failure to achieve any of the desired outcomes of the uprising. Tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for, disappeared into Assad’s dungeons. His security state remains all-powerful, and corruption and war profiteering are still rampant. Security is still poor: There have been assassinations in the southern province of Daraa, small protests in Druze-majority Suweida, Israeli bombings near Damascus, and rebel incursions near Aleppo. All that has changed is that ordinary Syrians are poorer and more traumatized, shivering in their homes without heating as Israeli missiles fly overhead, and many are feeling increasingly hopeless about their and the country’s prospects.

The war in Syria has always been about loss of hope—about exposing a moral rot at the core of the international order. Enough hospitals have been bombed, enough bakeries and schools eviscerated, enough lives upended, and enough evil has been perpetrated with impunity that it seems the rules no longer matter.

Syria’s slow destruction has shown the world that the myths about humanity’s inherent goodness and a concerned international community upholding human rights were just that—myths. The weak suffer what they must. And nothing will be done about it.

The latest round of violence, the unraveling economy, and the destitution that has robbed so many Syrians of hope for a better tomorrow show the cost of this erosion of decency. Without some measure of justice, with the tyrant still on the throne, no long-term peace will be tenable, no matter how many Russian missiles or barrel bombs rain from the sky.

Kareem Shaheen is a journalist and columnist based in Montreal. He is the former Middle East and Turkey correspondent for The Guardian, and was previously based in Istanbul, Beirut and Abu Dhabi. Twitter: @kshaheen

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