WASHINGTON – For the eight years that Syria has been mired in a civil war that has claimed more than half a million lives, the U.S. and Turkey have been among the fiercest critics of President Bashar Assad’s regime, arming his opponents and condemning his abuses.
In April 2017, and again a year later, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered airstrikes on Syrian targets as punishment for what the U.S. said was the use of chemical weapons. Both Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have described Assad as a “butcher” of his people.
Fast forward to late 2019, and Washington and Ankara’s actions might yet help Assad regain his hold over most of pre-war Syria.
The Syrian leader has crushed most of the rebels who tried to topple his regime, with the help of allies Iran and Russia. But about a third of the country in the oil-rich north and east remains outside Assad’s control — and in the hands of the Kurdish forces now being pummeled by Turkey, NATO’s second-largest army, after a green light from Washington.
Having lost the shelter of the U.S. the outgunned Kurds, who have been fighting for years against Islamic State forces, could be forced to turn to Damascus.
“The Kurds will see Washington’s shift as a reason to develop a framework for cooperation with the Assad regime and Russia,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North African research at Eurasia Group. “Over the long term, this would entail the return of the state to resource-rich areas of the country and further empower the Assad regime.”
Turkey threatened for months to go into Syria and push back Kurdish fighters with links to separatists the Turkish Army has been battling since 1984. But Erdogan only sent in his troops after Trump told American forces in the region to stand aside.
Trump, who has faced a volley of criticism, including from loyalists in Congress, for abandoning the Kurds, on Wednesday repeated his determination to remove the U.S. from Middle East conflicts — with a tweet. “The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”
How this plays out for Assad will depend largely on how the Kurds respond to the U.S. policy shift and the scale of the Turkish campaign, according to James Dorsey, a senior fellow specializing in the Middle East at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“If the Kurds believe they have no choice but to align themselves with Assad, he will have nominally expanded the Syrian territory that the government controls,” Dorsey said. “The question is whether Turkey would accept Syria as being responsible for security and withdraw. If not, Assad’s position would be significantly complicated.”
Syria lies at the center of a web of geopolitical tussles as local and global powers vie for influence. The broad contours of the competition pit the U.S. and its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia against Russia, Syria and Iran.
Turkey has long been a U.S. and European ally but a series of spats in recent years has seen Erdogan warm to Moscow, going as far as to risk American sanctions by buying an advanced Russian missile defense system. As Turkish troops prepared to push across the frontier, Russia and Iran were muted in their responses, asking Turkey to change course, act with restraint and respect Syrian sovereignty.
Much of the international consternation has focused on Islamic State detainees: There are about 70,000 family members in camps run by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, while small bands of jihadists remain at large.
Trump has said Turkey is now responsible for fighting the group in northern Syria but there has no been no mention of whether — or how — detainees would be transferred to Turkish custody and little assessment of Turkey’s ability to carry out counterinsurgency operations.
“The prisons and camps are vulnerable to the ISIS ideology, and this won’t get better with time,” Mick Mulroy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said last week at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
For Assad’s victims, the Turkish assault simply threatens to extend their country’s agony.
Omar Alshogre was repeatedly imprisoned from the age of 15 for participating in protests against the regime. While being held at Branch 215, a military intelligence prison in Damascus where abuses have been documented by Human Rights Watch, he saw three of his cousins die.
“We were tortured, tortured, tortured until you just don’t feel anything,” Alshogre, who lives in Sweden, said during a trip to Washington. “And you wake up in your room and you are still alive.” He sees little chance of Assad being held accountable for his crimes.
“Even if there is no war anymore, it’s still war for people inside Syria,” Alshogre said in further comments today. “The regime is going to punish everybody who thought against it, not talked, just thought inside his brain against the regime. These people will be punished. The regime is going to clean the area so they can stay in power a longer time.”
Paul Sullivan, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University in Washington, agrees that Assad could end up unhindered.
“The only hope for the end of Assad is with U.S. support,” Sullivan said. “Nobody will give that any credibility now.”