In Syria and Libya, Donald Trump is Torn Over 2 Wars, and 2 Strongmen
President Donald Trump during a news conference in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Washington: President Donald Trump has long sought to avoid confronting the leaders of Turkey and Russia — two foreign strongmen who are facing off in civil wars in Syria and Libya. But after an airstrike on Thursday that killed dozens of Turkish troops in northwest Syria, Trump may be forced to pick a side.
Nominal allies, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey have each thrown military forces and other support into two bloody conflicts that have spawned vast human suffering, have threatened to upend a fragile stability in the Middle East and may send hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into Europe.
Despite international calls for more American involvement, Trump has stood aside from significant intervention in either conflict — a decision consistent with his pledge to wind down the “endless wars” of the past two decades.
But State Department officials have made clear they view Russia as stirring the unrest, especially in Syria. Turkish leaders, well aware that their nation is viewed with distrust by many in Congress and within the NATO alliance, are seeking to use both conflicts to show the United States that they should put aside a year of strained diplomacy and unite against a common adversary: Moscow.
Details of Thursday’s attack remained murky, and it was not certain whether Russia or its allies in the Syrian air force carried out the strike that killed at least 33 Turks in the city of Idlib, now the epicenter of the Syria crisis. Either way, U.S. and Turkish officials maintain that Russia is integral to almost every part of the Syrian government’s military.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday blamed Russia for blocking humanitarian aid to Idlib and said President Bashar Assad of Syria had started a “brutal new aggression there, cynically backed by Moscow and Tehran.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close Trump ally, called on Thursday for establishing a no-fly zone over Idlib “to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from a horrible death.”
But experts note that Trump may have divided feelings. Jeffrey Edmonds, who handled Russia issues on the National Security Council under Trump and also during the Obama administration, said that “there is definitely a tension” as Trump has seemed drawn to both presidents. “He’s so pro-Russia most of the time that Putin is putting him in a strange position vis-à-vis Turkey,” Edmonds said.
Last week, Trump again belittled evidence showing that Moscow had tried to influence the 2016 presidential election in his favor as “the ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ nonsense.” Minutes later, he also discussed a recent phone call with Erdogan “about Idlib” and added that “we’re working together on seeing what can be done.”
Diplomats were waiting to see whether Erdogan would approach NATO after the attack for support under the alliance’s mutual-defense clause. The Turkish leader has frustrated NATO members, perhaps Washington most of all, with unilateral actions that include the purchase of Russian air-defense systems, prompting an American threat of sanctions.
The American ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said on Thursday that the alliance had not discussed whether the organization’s cornerstone of principle — that an attack on one member state is an attack against all — could be applied to Turkey.
Even so, Trump has made little use of the nonmilitary tools at his disposal to influence events in either Syria or Libya.
This month, Volkan Bozkir, the chairman of the Turkish Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said his country recognized that it faced “a crucial moment in our relations with the United States.” He specifically singled out the conflicts in Libya and Syria as situations where Turkey and the United States “need each other.”
“The US must be strong, and Turkey must be strong, to overcome all of these events,” Bozkir told journalists in Washington on February 12.
Russia defends what it describes as Assad’s military campaign against terrorists and claims that the Syrian president cannot be persuaded to protect civilians caught in the crossfire.
“In reality in Syria, all of the military system is produced by Russia,” Bozkir said. “They produced everything. It is obvious that if there is a plane use, or a missile use, or a bomb attack is occurring, it can’t be done without the knowledge of the Russians.”
Russia is helping Syrian government troops seize Idlib, in northwest Syria, where a brutal bombing campaign had forced more than 900,000 residents to flee and created the nine-year war’s single worst humanitarian crisis. At least 100 people have been killed in strikes by the Syrian government and its allies so far this month alone, the United Nations reported.
Assad remains determined to control Idlib, and has brushed off warnings from Turkey to pull back. Assad and Erdogan are longtime adversaries.
US diplomats have called for Turkey, Russia and other foreign forces to resist exacerbating the wars in both Libya and Syria, and instead uphold and enforce cease-fire agreements as a path to negotiated settlements.
“I don’t think anyone in this country is prepared to send the 82nd Airborne into that chaotic environment to try and solve another problem that’s not of our making in Syria,” Robert C. O’Brien, the White House national security adviser, said at the Atlantic Council this month.
Over the last few months, and faced with the mass of refugees at its border, Turkey has pushed thousands of troops and set up observation posts in Idlib as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to reduce violence in Syria. A senior Trump administration official said Russia is most likely the only power that could persuade Assad to back off, both in Idlib and in the northwestern city of Aleppo, another strategic prize in the Syrian war.
So far, that has not happened, and James F Jeffrey, the State Department’s special envoy on Syria and the Islamic State, said it was unclear if Russia was powerless to curb Assad or simply chose not to.
Regardless, Jeffrey told reporters on February 5, “Russia is not being helpful.”
Turkey and Russia have also taken opposing sides in Libya, where a former Libyan army general, Khalifa Hifter, and his forces are challenging the U.N.-backed government for control.
Russia has sided with Hifter, a dual Libyan-American citizen and former CIA asset who is accused of torture. Hifter also has the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all allies of the United States. The UAE is a major supplier of arms and fighter jets for Hifter.
But Moscow, seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East and Africa, has also deployed weapons and as many as 1,400 mercenaries with the Russian private security firm Wagner Group to assist Hifter, and has helped his Libyan Nation Army set up a rival government, including by printing currency.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this month, a senior U.S. diplomat mentioned Libya and Syria in the same breath while blaming Russia’s foreign military campaigns for escalating both wars.
Christopher Robinson, a deputy assistant secretary of state for European issues, said Russia’s military and political support for Assad “has fueled a conflict that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and forced millions to flee.”
“Libya now risks becoming the next venue for Russia’s malign efforts to exploit international conflicts for its own narrow political and economic gain,” Robinson said.
Lara Jakes and Michael Crowley c.2020 The New York Times Company