In November, Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces launched an offensive to drive al-Qaeda from its stronghold in northwestern Syria, thus violating the September agreement among Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara establishing a “de-escalation zone” in the area. Turkey has now inserted troops into this area, and seems to be giving support to al-Qaeda and other groups fighting alongside it. Just yesterday, after an apparently successful advance by pro-Assad forces, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Russia to halt its operations. Jennifer Cafarella, Elizabeth Teoman, and Matti Suomenaro explain what is at stake for the U.S.:
Erdogan is leveraging European and American fears over a renewed migrant flow out of northwestern Syria in order to rally support for pressuring Russia and Iran to halt their offensive. The pro-regime operation has reportedly already displaced up to 100,000 Syrians. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, stated that Turkey raised this issue with the U.S., France, Germany, and the UK in addition to Russia and Iran on January 10th. . . .
A pro-regime campaign to seize [northwestern Syria] is not in America’s interest. The extension of Assad’s control produces a corollary extension of Iran’s military footprint and leverage in Syria. This outcome directly contradicts the Trump administration’s stated Iran policy. Assad and his external backers, moreover, remain the primary drivers of radicalization in Syria. Their operations drive support for al-Qaeda and will likely trigger a widening escalation of the war in western Syria. Al-Qaeda retains significant combat power . . . and will launch a counter-offensive.
Neither Turkey nor Russia can deliver an outcome in Syria that supports U.S. interests. The U.S. should help Turkey block pro-regime operations that will cause further humanitarian catastrophe, but must refrain from accepting either Russia’s diplomatic play or Turkey’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Washington must instead retain freedom of action and avoid the temptation to outsource American national-security requirements to regional actors already at war in Syria.