After an airstrike ordered by the Syrian government killed at least 33 Turkish troops in Syria’s Idlib province Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is renewing calls for U.S. and NATO military assistance.
The Trump administration should turn down the request. Involving the United States in what is likely to be the final act of the Syrian civil war would be an enormous mistake.
The action the Trump administration should take, however, is to condemn Turkey’s recklessness and worsening of the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria. We should also withdraw the contingent of U.S. troops still operating in Syria.
Neglecting these options risks getting the U.S. more deeply entangled in a broader war.
On Feb. 20, as Turkish troops closed in on Syrian military locations in Idlib province, Erdogan made a direct request for U.S. combat air patrols and for American anti-aircraft missile batteries to protect Turkish forces from Russian and Syrian aircraft over Idlib.
When the American support did not materialize, Erdogan pressed forward with military operations in Saraqeb, a small town along Syria’s critical M5 highway linking Damascus and Aleppo. After a brutal clash, Turkey suffered heavy casualties in the nearby town of Balyun.
Following the military setback, Erdogan chaired an emergency national security council meeting in Istanbul, after which his official spokesman Fahrettin Altun, said: “Our operations in the Syrian theater will continue until the blood-soaked hands taking aim at our flag are broken. The decision to retaliate with far greater force against the illegitimate [Syrian] regime that pointed its guns at our soldiers has been made."
At the same time, Erdogan reached out to Moscow, asking for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s help.
Turkey then invoked Article 4 of the NATO treaty in Belgium, summoning all 29 NATO ambassadors to a meeting. Erdogan called on NATO to support him by setting up a no-fly zone over Idlib, where the airspace is under Russian control.
In the United States, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wasted no time enthusiastically endorsing the idea.
"The world is sitting on its hands and watching the destruction of Idlib," Graham said in a statement. "I am confident if the world, led by the United States, pushed back against Iran, Russia, and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad that they would stand down, paving the way for political negotiations to end this war in Syria."
Before President Trump, Congress, or any other Americans give any consideration to such a request, a brief refresher will prove useful to examine how we got to this point.
Syrian forces began their final assault to defeat regime enemies in the last major rebel holdout, Idlib, last spring, trapping more than 1 million innocent civilians between the two sides.
But in case that wasn’t enough, President Erdogan decided to complicate the picture further by unilaterally conquering and occupying a strip of Syrian territory – against U.S. wishes – 20 miles deep by 500 miles wide. Moreover, Turkey has supported a group of rebels against the allied Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces in Idlib.
Against this backdrop of disastrous military operations, Erdogan has proven he will take whatever action he deems in Turkey’s interests, wholly independent of what is good for the U.S. or NATO.
Erdogan ignored Washington’s plea that he not move his troops into Syrian territory. He ignored NATO’s protests and made a deal with Russia to get advanced S-400 anti-aircraft defense systems. And he detained a U.S. citizen to pressure Washington.
Now, after ignoring American, NATO and Russian pleas to refrain from a military incursion into Syria, Erdogan demands Western help.
None should be provided.
Here is the critical point to understand: there are no “good” and “bad” guys in this situation; only multiple actors with conflicting self-interests, none of which benefit us.
Opposite the Syrian regime forces in Idlib are thousands of militant Islamic fighters, many of whom are allied with Al Qaeda. Turkey is fighting against elements of both sides.
The last thing Washington should do is provide cover for Turkey, underwriting Ankara’s regional ambitions that are worsening a humanitarian crisis and deepening a chaotic war.
While there is nothing to gain for American intervention in Syria, there is a great deal to lose. Russia already commands the airspace over Idlib, so trying to set up a NATO no-fly zone in the same area could potentially spark a war with a nuclear superpower.
Already, our tiny contingent of troops in Syria – serving as targets – have had several near-clashes with Russian troops. It would be beyond foolish to insert ourselves into a late-stage civil war disconnected from U.S. security.
Washington should immediately withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria before any mishaps occur or any Americans are killed. Turkey was warned repeatedly in the months before its ill-considered invasion of Syria. We should not risk getting sucked into yet another Middle Eastern war by bailing Turkey out now.