Trump Was Right to Let Turkey Advance in Syria

The outbreak of direct combat between Turkey and the Syrian regime of Basher al-Assad has shown the wisdom of President Donald Trump's strategy in the area. He took considerable flak for pulling American troops out of northern Syria last October. It was argued that the withdrawal in the face of a Turkish advance would threaten the Kurds, a longtime U.S. ally, and could even revive ISIS! In response, President Trump tweeted "As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I... consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey." U.S. troops redeployed to protect oil fields in Syria to keep them out of the hands of the regime and to protect the Kurds in the area, but a military confrontation with Turkey was avoided. The White House understood the strategic benefits from stronger Turkish-Sunni forces being brought into territory liberated from Assad; a calculation made on a level beyond what critics could grasp.

Ankara has taken control of the Free Syrian Army, the Sunni rebel force that the U.S. had only half-heartedly backed during the Obama administration. Turkey and Syria have long-standing disputes over territory, water rights, and other antagonisms which have only been heightened by Iran's large-scale intervention in the civil war to prop up Assad. A majority of Syrians and Turks are Sunni whereas Assad is an Alawite which is associated with Iran's Shia faith. It is this schism in Islam that is the driving force of conflict in the Middle East today. The U.S. and Israel are aligned with the Sunnis because Iran is the expansionist power. Tehran wants to wipe Israel off the map, overthrow the Jordanian government, seize control of Iraq and drive the U.S. out of the region. Russia, and to a lesser extent China, is aligned with Iran. Just days before a U.S. drone strike killed Iran's Quds force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who was plotting with pro-Tehran militia groups in Iraq, China and Russia held joint naval exercises with Iran.

Turkey needs to be supported in an alignment against Iran. Turkey has the largest army in the region, indeed the largest army in NATO, and a level of proficiency that gives it superiority over the Iran-Syria-militia forces.

Damascus made a major error in bombing Turkish troops on February 27, killing 36 soldiers. Ankara's response was swift. Turkish drones struck airbases and other military targets deep in Syrian regime-held territory, reportedly killing three senior generals. Turkish troops and Sunni militia drove Assad's troops out of towns and villages they had recently captured from rebels. According to a report in the Washington Post, "Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkey has killed 2,200 Syrian troops and destroyed large amounts of heavy weaponry, including 103 tanks, six air defense systems and 72 Howitzers and rocket launchers, since the fighting ticked up in recent days." The Turks also shot down two Russian-supplied Syrian Su-24 attack jets reportedly using U.S.-supplied F-16 fighters.

The Syrian regime's offensive in Idlib province had created a major refugee crisis as the Sunni residents fled the brutal sectarian onslaught on their last stronghold. The UN had called this exodus the worst humanitarian crisis of the nine-year civil war, which, given the horrors committed by Assad in what often seemed a genocidal campaign against the rebels (including chemical weapons), says quite a lot. The first wave of these refugees has already reached the border of Greece which blocked their entry. The fear is that over a million people will be displaced by the regime's offensive.

Two weeks ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Russia, whose airstrikes against civilians have raised charges of war crimes, that his army was ready to march; “We won’t leave Idlib to those who haven’t understood our resolve, to the regime and those who encourage it.” Russia did not seem deterred and called any Turkish advance Ankara's "worst option." But as of this writing, it seems it is Moscow that is deterred, as it has not given Assad the military support on the ground needed to counter the Turks. Attacking lightly armed rebels and defenseless villagers is one thing, but the Russians are not eager to face a major regional power like Turkey which is still a member of NATO.

It remains to be seen whether Iran will also think twice before escalating into a war with Turkey, given the threats President Trump issued after the killing of Suleimani about "disproportionate" retaliation if there are further increases in violence. President Trump had backed Erdogan's warning. After talking to the Turkish president by phone, he called him  "a tough guy" and said that “We are working together on seeing what can be done with regard to Idlib." Iran's response will also be tempered by the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic. The virus has already claimed the life of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi, indicating that it may have done in Tehran what it has not done elsewhere, penetrated the ranks of the ruling elite.

While events with substantial strategic impact are taking place in the real world of warring states, fanciful elements in Congress are giving clear proof why national security policy has naturally evolved into the hands of the Executive branch. On February 12, a coalition of Democrats and libertarian Republicans voted "to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran." Less than a week later, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) a co-sponsor of the measure, met in secret with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Munich. The impropriety of such a meeting (which involved other senators who are still hiding their participation) is off the charts. Murphy tweeted that "I cannot conduct diplomacy on behalf of the whole of the U.S. government," but he did inform Iran's top diplomat "Congress is a co-equal branch of government, responsible along with the Executive for setting foreign policy." And to the extent this holds, Zarif feels assured by Murphy that Iran has nothing to worry about.  

For the good of America, such attempted interference in military operations by Congress should be dismissed as incompetent and defeatist. President Trump's policy in Syria is working on a scale his critics never imagined and should be supported.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor who has served on the staff of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee.   

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