Syria Is Turkey’s Problem, Not America’s

The war in Idlib is a growing humanitarian crisis, a potential disaster for Ankara—and a problem that doesn’t bear on Washington.

By Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 13, 2019. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Last week, Turkey went to war with Russia—sort of. Ankara’s present military operations are in response to a Feb. 27 attack in Syria that killed 36 Turkish soldiers and wounded another 30. (Turkish authorities in Hatay province, which is closest to the area where the attack occurred, initially blamed Russia, but in Ankara officials placed responsibility with Syrian regime forces.) Since then, the Turks have deployed the firepower of an advanced NATO military machine against Syrian targets, while the Russians have been forced to stand aside. Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have said they want to de-escalate, which is precisely what they did in Moscow on Thursday when they agreed to a cease-fire.

With all the talk in Washington these days about “great-power competition,” events in Syria have taken place without much in the way of U.S. involvement. And, guess what? The sun rose over the Potomac River in Washington anyway. Throughout the post-World War II era, American officials and commentators have created the expectation—mostly among themselves—that the United States was a necessary presence in places near and far, because everything was important to the strategic interests of a global power. Yet this new Turkish phase of the conflict in Syria is just the latest example that undermines this idea. At least in the Syrian case, Turkey seems to be doing just fine on its own.

Prior to the attack that killed the three dozen Turkish soldiers, there has been much freaking out in Ankara about the apparent lack of interest of the United States and the West in helping Turkey in Syria. NATO expressed words of support, but Turkey’s request for Patriot missile batteries went unheeded. Then, as tit-for-tat attacks between Turkish and Syrian forces increased, Turkish commentators went into overdrive. Sinan Ulgen, a well-respected analyst, tweeted that the West must step up to support Turkey so as not to alienate its NATO ally. Fahrettin Altun, a spokesperson for Erdogan, also posted a long thread on Twitter critiquing the response from the West, calling it “disheartening.” Erdogan’s media toadies picked up on these rebukes and, in turn, have been howling about the righteousness of Turkey’s cause and attacked the United States and Europe for not standing by Ankara.

This is to be expected by now from Turkish intellectuals, officials, and journalistic ass-kissers alike, but it seems an odd waste of time and energy for at least two reasons. First, it all seems so not self-aware. The Turkish government has spent the better part of the last decade undercutting U.S. foreign policy, engaging in terrible anti-American rhetoric, and threatening or arresting Americans. It is hard to remember, but around 2011 and 2012 it was difficult to find a critic of Turkey, Erdogan, and the Justice and Development Party in Washington. Now it is hard to find an ally of Ankara, though there are a credulous few in addition to the cynical who are just getting paid. Perhaps only Erdogan’s bête noire, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has blown more Washington goodwill faster than the Turkish president. As a result, inside the Beltway, there is not a lot of interest in helping Turkey these days. In fact, sentiment runs in the opposite direction: Let Erdogan figure out his own mess. He has not been a partner, so why should the United States risk direct involvement in Syria’s conflict to help Ankara? With few advocates and a president who ran on making America great in part by getting it out of the Middle East, the Turks should not have expected much from Washington beyond well-worn words.

Second, and more importantly, the Turkish armed forces do not seem to need much help. Since launching Operation Spring Shield, the Turks have done significant damage to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The Turkish military has sliced through much of Syria’s front-line forces, shooting down planes and helicopters, destroying artillery, and killing large numbers of personnel while suffering only modest losses of their own. The United States may have unique military capabilities that could be helpful to Turkey, but the Turks do not seem to need them. The same is true of Europe: While Erdogan has proved he can impose pain on the continent by encouraging refugees to head for its borders, it’s unclear why he would expect any military contribution from Europe’s under-resourced militaries to benefit Turkey’s war in Syria. Rather than whining about lack of U.S. and European support, Turkish officials could easily simply say, “We got this.”

The problem for Turkey is not military proficiency—especially against Syrian forces that couldn’t knock over a 7-Eleven in Aleppo before the Russians intervened on their behalf in 2015. Rather, the problem is the same one that has been plaguing Turkey’s Syria policy, and that of every other country outside of Russia and Iran. Turkish officials have no idea how to bring the conflict to a definitive end and have proved themselves helpless to relieve the seemingly endless suffering of Syrians. But this makes them no different than their European and American counterparts.

The United States and Europe have essentially conceded as much. The United States simply sees no interests in Syria that it’s willing to defend with military force, including the protection of civilian lives. While policymakers in Washington shake their heads over the resulting carnage, there is little interest in providing humanitarian assistance in an active war zone.

For his part, Erdogan once imagined regime change in Damascus as an end game, but he realized he needed Putin’s forbearance to help keep Kurdish nationalism at bay. That’s why Erdogan was compelled to sign a lopsided cease-fire agreement with Putin and the Iranians in September 2018 that imposed conditions—such as the disarmament of extremist groups in Syria—he had no hope of ever fulfilling. To Erdogan’s credit, the agreement helped stave off disaster for a few years.

But by late 2019 the Russian military and Assad determined that it was time to take back the Syrian provinces near the Turkish border. For Assad, Idlib was the last remaining province beyond his control. The resulting scorched-earth military strategy produced the humanitarian disaster now unfolding in northwest Syria, in which almost a million people are caught between three armies. The prospect of millions more desperate Syrians entering Turkey is what spurred Erdogan’s current military buildup there. The result has been a war within a war—and a situation that American officials have, once again, signaled is not a high priority. In any case, the cease-fire that Erdogan and Putin hammered out on March 5 underscores that the Turks are perfectly capable of handling the crisis without Washington holding their hands—at least in the short term.

In the longer term, the Turks do have a case for international assistance on Syria. So long as the Syrians, Russians, and Iranians continue to spill an astonishing amount of blood there, Ankara will face the potential crisis of caring for millions of refugees whose presence could prove destabilizing in Turkey. But, while no one is going to stop the Turks from trying to stem this emergency’s root causes, no one is going to help them either—least of all the United States.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.