U.S. Must Threaten Russia With Military Intervention in Idlib to Secure Ceasefire, Former Envoy Says

A former American special envoy to Syria has suggested that the U.S. should consider military intervention in the northwest of the country after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike there.

The Turkish soldiers died Thursday when a Syrian airstrike hit a military base in the Behun area of Idlib province, where the Syrian regime—backed by its Russian and Iranian allies—is trying to crush the last significant area held by Turkish-backed rebels.

Though Turkish troops have already been attacked and even killed by the regime, the scale and brutality of Thursday's attack marked an escalation in the conflict. Russia has denied involvement.

According to Frederic C. Hof, a former U.S. special envoy to Syria and now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, the incident lays bare U.S. failings in the country and the need to support NATO ally Turkey.

In comments sent to Newsweek, Hof said the Turkish deaths were "needless" and "uncalled for."

The U.S. has repeatedly called for a ceasefire but the demands have fallen on deaf ears. U.S. troops are deployed in northeastern and eastern Syria, but regular troops are not present in Idlib.

American special forces have conducted missions there—for example the assassination of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr all-Baghdadi last year—but Washington's role in the current offensive is a diplomatic one.

Hof said American officials were wrong to make statements showing they have no intention to intervene in Idlib militarily, whether to protect civilians or support NATO ally Turkey.

Such statements, he argued, "have promoted a sense of absolute impunity among adversaries who have no sense of decency and no known limits when it comes to mass civilian homicide or targeting U.S. allies."

"These statements accomplish nothing beyond making U.S. diplomacy aimed at saving lives and supporting an ally impotent and useless," he added. "They are uncalled for and profoundly damaging."

Turkey launched a series of air and artillery strikes in response to Thursday's deadly attack, hitting regime soldiers and armor in Idlib. Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces hit 200 Syrian government targets—including helicopters, tanks and anti-aircraft systems—"neutralizing" 309 Syrian troops.

Hof argued that Washington should "be prepared to offer combat air support if Turkish forces come under air assault from any quarter" and should support Ankara if it decides to widen its military operations against Syrian and Russian forces.

President Bashar al-Assad and the Kremlin argue that remaining militants in Idlib—largely Islamist forces dominated by the formerly Al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—are terrorists.

Turkish troops deployed alongside them, meanwhile, are occupiers who are in the country uninvited by the government, Assad has said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkish troops are deployed to prevent a new wave of refugees fleeing Idlib across its northern border into Turkey. Erdogan has said Turkish forces will not take "the smallest step back."

Hof argued that U.S. intervention may be the only way to de-escalate the situation. "Russia should be warned that U.S. combat aviation intervention may be imminent absent an immediate, enforced ceasefire."

"Such a warning might not have been necessary, had Washington not signaled indifference," he added. "Perceptions of U.S. weakness and indifference in Syria threaten, as they have previously, to unleash a contagion of instability far beyond the killing fields of Syria's Idlib province."

President Donald Trump's Syrian policy has been erratic. Long opposed to protracted foreign wars, the president announced he would withdraw American troops from the country in December 2018, prompting Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to resign.

Though the president walked back the plan, he did order American forces out of northeastern Syrian in October 2019 ahead of a Turkish assault on U.S.-allied Kurdish-led forces in the region. American troops have since returned to the area—resulting in confrontations with Syrian and Russian troops—and have been deployed to take control of the country's eastern oil fields.

US, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Idlib, airstrikes
Smoke billows above the rebel-controlled village of Salihiyah near the regime-controlled town of Saraqeb, in the eastern part of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, on February 26, 2020. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images/Getty