Washington is stoking a new Balkan crisis
Syria is not a lost cause for the US — but it is getting close
The long-awaited assault in Syria's Idlib province by President Bashar al-Assad's army, backed by Russian airpower and Iranian-sponsored militias, is well underway. Again, the people of Syria are experiencing horrific tragedy. Assad justifies his actions in terms of counterterrorism. But his scorched-earth tactics primarily kill, maim and render homeless innocent civilians, most from the nation's Sunni majority population.
The outcome of the nine-year-old war, with its half-million dead and nearly 15 million displaced, is not really in doubt at one level. Assad and allies will win. But lots is still at stake in this war, starting with the fate of Idlib's 3 million inhabitants in the country's northwest. There also remains the possibility of enormous refugee flows into Turkey and, from there, the rest of Europe. Clashes could erupt between Russia and Turkey inside Syria, since both have forces there and an earlier ceasefire has broken down; Syrian and Turkish forces have just exchanged lethal gunfire.
Perhaps most concerning of all is the future of the country after the shooting eventually stops. If the West turns away and Assad dictates his own terms of victory, a triumphalist dictator will surely punish his vanquished opponents. In the process, Assad will breathe new life into the popular grievances that launched the conflict in the first place, and boost prospects for a resurgence of violent extremism.
Clearly, neither President Trump nor former President Obama has had any interest in getting involved in this conflict, beyond defeating ISIS. Clearly, the United Nations has failed miserably in its peace process, although it was given an unenviable, nearly impossible task. And most clearly of all, Assad will not be pushed from power militarily at this juncture.
However, the United States and its allies can still pursue these goals:
- Limit the humanitarian catastrophe and refugee flows to the extent possible, by supporting Turkish efforts to slow the Assad regime's offensive in Idlib and increasing humanitarian assistance.
- Mitigate the risks that Turkish forces in northern Idlib will be attacked.
- Maintain some influence and leverage over areas like the Kurdish-dominated northeast, including the capacity to help provide reconstruction aid there.
- Provide incentives for political transition in the country, if not to an elected president then at least to a managed process whereby Assad relinquishes hold of the country that he has so butchered and bludgeoned.
There is, in fact, much we can still do on each of these fronts.
To begin, Turkey's intervention in northwest Syria deserves U.S. support. It is designed to save lives and prevent refugee flows by providing protection and relief for affected populations in place. Ideally, Turkey would show Syrian refugees the same hospitality today it demonstrated in earlier phases of the conflict. Yet, if Turkey can no longer countenance adding to the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees already on its territory, establishing a real safe zone inside Syria is crucial for civilian protection. Turkey's inherent right of self-defense under the U.N. Charter, to say nothing of the Genocide Convention, provides ample legal basis for its operations in areas of Syria near its own territory.
U.S. officials have endorsed Turkey's presence in parts of Idlib but done little beyond a few statements from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. We should share intelligence on Syria with Turkey and lead a diplomatic effort to build an international coalition that supports and legitimates Turkey's efforts to halt the Assad regime's advance. Moreover, Washington should warn Russia that any attacks on Turkish positions will lead to new sanctions under the recently signed CAESAR act. Of course, any U.S. or Turkish forces coming under direct attack will retain the right to defend themselves (as U.S. forces did two years ago, with devastating effect, when mercenaries from Russia's Wagner Group showed hostile intent against a U.S. position in the east).
Supporting Turkey's efforts now could create leverage down the road. It will signal Damascus and Moscow that the United States will have a say in shaping what comes next. By holding territory in northern Syria, governments that oppose the Assad regime gain a valuable bargaining chip, denying Damascus full sovereignty over the north unless it agrees to implement a verifiable, meaningful political transition.
U.S. diplomacy toward this end would be strengthened by further exploiting two key priorities of both Moscow and Damascus: gaining Western aid for post-conflict reconstruction and obtaining sanctions relief. To be sure, no U.S. funds should be forthcoming while Assad remains in place. Nor should Washington do anything to loosen its effective sanctions policy while his regime is in power. Broader assistance to Damascus and the country as a whole should only flow once a meaningful political transition is underway and a new government is installed - even if that new government is one that Assad and his Russian patrons have a hand in picking.
Indeed, rumors have begun to circulate that Moscow is advising Assad to prepare for a political transition. Helping Turkey to prevent Assad from retaking Idlib will bolster Moscow's efforts to ease Assad from power. While such a transition will be far from ideal, the right new president and Cabinet could strengthen possibilities for stitching the country back together and putting Syria on a post-conflict trajectory that could pave the way for U.S. and European Union assistance and the easing of sanctions.
Thanks to Turkey's intervention, the United States and its allies now have an opportunity to offer assistance to beleaguered civilians in Idlib, regain leverage over Syria's post-conflict settlement, demonstrate that NATO allies can cooperate to advance mutual interests despite their differences, and advance the larger strategic aim of a meaningful political transition in Syria. Such an initiative does not require big, bold new investments or risks from Washington. It simply requires the kind of concerted focus and consistency that, alas, the United States has never mustered since this war started in 2011.
Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, specializing in defense and foreign policy. His most recent book is "The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War over Small Stakes" (2019). Steven Heydemann is the Ketcham Chair in Middle East Studies at Smith College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.