This year, 2020, has proven to be especially nightmarish for Idlib. Within the past four months, roughly one million Syrians have been displaced by the Russian-backed regime offensive. Like many countries worldwide, Syria is also reporting cases of COVID-19 (a.k.a. coronavirus), a terrifying pandemic that threatens to further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Idlib.
On March 5, following weeks of clashes in Idlib between Turkey’s military on one side and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) along with various militias loyal to Bashar al-Assad on the other, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached a deal. As a result of “Sochi 2.0,” there has been a halt for now to the bloodshed in Idlib, which serves Ankara’s interests in terms of preventing a new major influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey.
Moscow realized that Erdogan was cornered into action by the widespread opposition among Turkey’s public opinion to an influx of more Syrian refugees; this is underscored by the increasing popularity of nationalist parties inside Turkey and by the fact that Ankara is now actively encouraging refugees already inside Turkey to move towards the EU. Arguably, Ankara was ready to steamroll Assad out of Idlib and even clash with Russian forces, if that proved necessary.
During the Putin-Erdogan summit in Moscow, the two leaders agreed on a military ceasefire, the establishment of a jointly patrolled secure corridor along the key M4 highway and to facilitate the return of civilians who fled the latest Russia-backed SAA offensive in Syria's Idlib.
Despite the ceasefire, the picture is not entirely rosy for Ankara. It is not clear where Turkey is headed in terms of its relationship with the regime in Damascus. A growing number of Erdogan’s supporters were recently calling for Assad’s ouster, while prominent members of the Turkish opposition urge Ankara to engage the Syrian government diplomatically.
Officials in Ankara, however, are forced to accept certain realities about Idlib and Syria which are painful for many Turks. Under “Sochi 2.0”, the SAA’s military gains are further consolidated, underscoring how Ankara must deal with the Syrian government. At this juncture, the $64,000 question is whether or not the agreed-upon cease-fire will last. Previous ceasefires in other parts of Syria brokered by Russia and Turkey did not hold pro-Assad forces for long, and the Idlib agreement is already tottering due to ongoing sporadic clashes between the SAA and Ankara-backed rebels.
From the Turkish perspective, there are grave concerns that if “Sochi 2.0” falls apart and fighting resumes, Turkey will appear in a weaker position given the extent to which the deal has enabled the Syrian regime to consolidate its control of territory in north-western Syria.
Clearly, the deal which Erdogan and Putin arrived at earlier this month does not provide a political solution to the crisis in Idlib. Although “Sochi 2.0” has served its purpose in terms of pausing the bloodshed, the fact of the matter is that Ankara and Moscow view the province, where the “final battle” of Syria’s civil war has been taking place for years, in fundamentally different ways.
As Russia sees it, the Assad regime is Syria’s sole UN-recognized government with legitimate authority in the country. Thus any forces fighting to topple Assad which refuse to enter into negotiations are “terrorists.” Assad’s offensive in Idlib has therefore been within the Syrian state’s right as a matter countering terrorism. In agreement with Damascus, Russia continues to consider Idlib as the sanctuary of terrorists and rebels that threaten the rest of Syria. In making the case that Idlib is a hotbed for global terrorists, Russians are quick to observe that the U.S. military killed the former leader of Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the province last year.
The Turkish perspective, on the other hand, is vastly different. Ankara views the prospects for a large new exodus of refugees towards its borders as unacceptable, yet inevitable if the SAA keeps pursuing its goal of recapturing every inch of Idlib. Moreover, Turkey continues to view Assad’s government as illegitimate and believes that some of the actors in northern Syria deserve greater support from the international community and rejects the classification of all these groups as terrorists.
Regardless of how developments in Idlib unfold, it is clear that the status quo cannot be sustained. Doubtless, the Kremlin finds itself dealing with a major dilemma vis-à-vis Idlib at a time when Russia seeks to expand its role in the Middle East. For Moscow, preventing a full-scale Turkish-Syrian war over northwestern Syria is a high priority. Moreover, Russia would like to use its leverage to put greater pressure on Turkey to make peace with Assad’s government.
As Moscow continues trying to push Ankara toward a more Russia-friendly approach to dealing with Assad and the crisis in Idlib, there are some critical issues where the Russian and Turkish governments lack a common understanding. Such matters could lead to a new rise in tensions in Ankara-Moscow relations depending on how the two sides address them.
The first issue is how to ensure that the most radical groups among Idlib’s rebels, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and the Iranian-backed militias fighting on Assad’s side, abide by the ceasefire. While Russia expects Turkey to use the ceasefire as an opportunity to rein in Idlib’s radical groups, Ankara seeks Moscow’s cooperation in deterring SAA provocations. Worryingly, there is no sign — at least not yet — that Turkey or Russia are preparing to address each other’s concerns on this. Although Turkey’s government designated HTS a terrorist group in August 2018, experts such as Fehim Tastekin argue that officials in Ankara were reluctant to “to treat the jihadi factions it has backed, and allowed to use its borders, as terrorist groups.”
Further complicating these dynamics is the fact that Turkish soldiers are now a target for both pro-Assad forces and militant Sunni jihadists. The recent killing of two Turkish troops in the province, presumably at the hands of HTS, underscored at least one price that Ankara pays for its decision to agree to “Sochi 2.0,” which made Turkey more vulnerable to the same extremist forces that Russia been demanding Ankara suppress. A key question is if such deadly acts of violence directed against Turkish personnel in Idlib will prompt Ankara to fight against radical Sunni jihadist groups, which could possibly ease tensions in Russian-Turkish relations. Yet scholars such as Gonul Tol have previously maintained that Turkey’s capacity to do so is “questionable at best.”
Another major issue is the fate of those observation posts manned by Ankara’s troops in northwest Syria that are now surrounded by Syrian government forces as a result of the SAA offensive on Idlib. An attack on Turkish observation posts is likely to trigger a forceful response from Ankara and a wider escalation.
Lastly, as Russia seeks to exert more pressure on Turkey, Moscow and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG) appear to be moving closer. Although relations between Russia and the YPG are not new, this month the Kremlin has been keen to take advantage of the YPG’s loss of trust in its main superpower ally, the United States. In all probability, Russia’s aim in improving relations with the YPG is to give itself greater bargaining power when it comes to talks with Turkey about the future of Syria.
The battle for Idlib underscores Russia’s increasing dilemma on how to deal with Turkey as Moscow becomes increasingly active on key MENA dossiers in which Ankara has high stakes. Despite the temptation by Moscow to increase its engagement with Turkey in order to add to growing intra-NATO tensions, Moscow and Ankara’s respective MENA region agendas appear to be on an inevitable collision course.
The budding Russian-Turkish rivalry is also playing out in Libya. While Turkey has stepped up support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, the Kremlin has encouraged private Russian military companies to join forces with the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar. In addition, Russia is flirting and coordinating with influential regional countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), that openly oppose Ankara’s foreign policy. For instance, the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, visited the UAE—the country accused by Erdogan of having a hand in the 2016 coup attempt against him—as recently as February 12.
It is clear that Russia is asserting itself into the Middle East more forcefully than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As it does so, Moscow is exploiting geopolitical and ideological rivalries to enhance its position in the tumultuous region while filling the vacuum created by declining U.S. influence.
Antonino Occhiuto, based in Rome, completed his postgraduate studies in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he obtained a Master of Science (MSc) in International Politics, a course specifically focused on the Middle East and security and defence affairs. His main areas of research and specialisation are the relations between EU and GCC member states, internal political dynamics in the GCCs, Yemen and security in the Gulf. He contributes periodically with magazines and newspapers both in English and Italian and to the Italian Review of Geopolitics "Limes". Antonino has already presented at high level forums including the EMSI conference in Nicosia (2018), IEMed’s EuroMeSCo conference in Barcelona (2019) and DGAP-organised forums in Berlin and Amman (2019). Antonino currently works as Analyst and Researcher at Gulf State Analytics (GSA).
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, DC. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening of the Natural Gas Pipeline (turkstream) in November 2018. (quetions123/shutterstock)
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.
Last month, Foreign Policy published a report that stirred the debate on U.S. Middle East policy. It claimed “the Biden administration is reconsidering its priorities” in Syria and may conduct “a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.” Now, legacy media is debating the future of American involvement in Syria.
Missing from this discussion is the suffering that involvement has caused.
Writing for the New York Times, retired general Kenneth McKenzie warns “it’s not time for our troops to leave” Syria. Mere talk of a withdrawal (let alone actually withdrawing), he argues, is “seriously damaging to U.S. interests.” It “gives hope to Tehran” that Iran might rival American influence in the Middle East — which is bad, supposedly. Why Iran has less of a right to influence its own region than people thousands of miles away is unclear.
McKenzie also argues that American troops must remain to “secure the prisons holding ISIS fighters.” Without boots on the ground, militants might escape and the Islamist group could “rejuvenate itself.” McKenzie doesn’t believe the Syrian government could prevent prison breaks on its own, or even with Russian and Iranian support.
This argument is highly speculative. If the Americans leave, imprisoned ISIS fighters might escape. And, if enough do, they might rebuild their organization into a force too formidable for Syrian forces to handle. Multiple unlikely contingencies must materialize to even warrant taking this reasoning seriously.
But McKenzie’s claim suffers a more fundamental problem. It confuses the cause for the antidote. Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Rand Paul knows American intervention created the conditions that allowed ISIS to grow. Bombing Arab nations to smithereens, toppling their leaders, and starving governments through sanctions and outright theft generated a power vacuum. As did deploying troops indefinitely, which prevented states like Syria from maintaining territorial integrity and establishing the mechanisms for self-governance.
McKenzie believes the Syrian government is simply too weak to quell the increasingly small threat an ISIS in retreat poses. Assuming he’s correct, it’s worth asking why that’s the case. The facts again point to American intervention.
Nearly 13 years into its ongoing civil war, Syria is in tatters. Once a middle-income nation with respectable living standards, it’s now the poorest country on Earth. More than 90% of Syrians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Their paychecks are worthless, with the Syrian pound losing virtually all of its relative value since the war began.
It’s not all America’s fault. The Syrian government undoubtedly bears significant blame for the humanitarian crisis. But American sanctions hamstring it from improving matters. The infamous Caesar Act targets anyone who "engages in a significant transaction" with the Syrian government. Signed into law by Donald Trump, this heinous policy effectively precludes the international community from helping Syria rebuild.
A bipartisan but overwhelmingly Democratic coalition of lawmakers recently voted against slapping new sanctions on Syria. Unfortunately, for every one of them, there were 12 supporters of the legislation. Dubbed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, it would extend the sunset of the Caesar sanctions by eight years. The bill would also expand the list of proscribed transactions.
But there’s more. Years ago, with America’s blessing, Turkish-backed militias stole capital from over 1,000 factories in the city of Aleppo alone. This assault on the productive forces of Syria’s industrial hub left its economy in tatters. But that’s not all the United States and its allies stole. America’s occupying troops routinely commandeer Syrian wheat and petroleum. Trump admitted as much, saying that soldiers “were staying in Syria to secure oil resources.”
The Syrian state is starving. More American intervention isn’t what Syria needs. It needs the United States’ boot off of its neck.
In these discussions of states and militants, we mustn’t lose sight of what matters most: the people. American militarism in Syria has wrought dire human costs. It has helped to plunge Syrians into the depths of unimaginable despair. Over 80% of them are food-insecure and a similar proportion lack sustained access to electricity. Many enjoy just one hour of it per day. Without electricity, you can’t refrigerate food and it rots. That causes shortages. People have taken to eating out of the garbage.
McKenzie seems to care little about this immense suffering. And why would he? His job as a general was to project American military might, whatever the costs, a position he apparently continues as a guest writer for The New York Times.