By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib*
US President Donald Trump on Tuesday had a phone call with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss cease-fires in Libya and Syria in the light of the dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic. This is a very positive sign that, when facing the same threat, which does not differentiate between nations, ethnicities or religions, warring parties can put their differences aside and cooperate, instead of confronting one another.
The theme of the discussion between Trump and Erdogan chimed with the call of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who last week called on nations and groups around the world to lay down their arms and fight the common enemy. However, beyond answering Guterres’ humanitarian call for a cease-fire, there are pragmatic reasons pushing the US and Turkey to bridge their differences.
First of all, both Turkey and the US, just like every country around the globe, are trying to adapt and manage the coronavirus crisis. Facing a staggering number of virus cases that will require hospitalization, likely overwhelming every health system on the planet, as well as the prospect of a recession going into a depression, the game of geopolitical influence becomes secondary for most leaders.
There is an urgent need for stability, especially concerning Syria. Both leaders understand that, if they allow Bashar Assad to take Idlib, this will result in another wave of violence that could extend beyond the northern Syrian province. Neither the US nor Turkey are ready to manage that. They know that the people in Idlib will not surrender. Fending off Assad’s offensive will also keep the internally displaced people in Idlib and prevent another wave of migration, at least for the moment.
Idlib is the last enclave of the Syrian opposition. They are unlikely to reconcile with Assad, who, in turn, won’t show any grace or mercy to his staunchest enemies. Therefore, there will not be a settlement similar to the one in Daraa, which was retaken by the regime with a controlled level of violence. In Idlib, the situation will likely spiral out of control and the flow of refugees will not be manageable. The March 5 agreement between Russia and Turkey was concluded in large part because neither the Russians nor the Turks have a solution for the flow of refugees. Today, handling 1 million refugees in the light of the coronavirus crisis is a nightmare no party wants to undertake.
The silver lining behind the pandemic is a change in the perspective of world leaders, who will now be more ready to compromise in order to secure stability. In the face of the crisis created by coronavirus, they cannot handle any further uncertainty in foreign affairs. They cannot risk more carnage in Syria.
With this in mind, the US, which has a love-hate relationship with Erdogan, is now joining forces with Turkey in an attempt to stabilize Idlib. Although Congress passed a resolution condemning Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria in November last year, Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey last month announced that the US is working with NATO and the EU to ensure Turkey gets the support it needs in Idlib. Washington, which canceled the sale of fighter jets to Turkey because the latter acquired the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, is now proposing to sell Turkey its Patriot missiles if it doesn’t use the S-400.
Even the Russians, who were the patrons of the offensive that started three months ago, found the task overwhelming and entered into the March 5 cease-fire agreement with Turkey to limit the bloodshed. The US’ support of Ankara will probably make the cease-fire more enduring.
However, violence in the northwest could spill over all around the country. The southwest, which was recaptured by Assad two years ago, is boiling. One media outlet has described the province as being like glowing embers amid the ashes that could reignite at any time. Discontent is high and the various armed factions have formed a division that is supposedly now part of the pro-regime forces, but has a tense relation with Damascus.
Meanwhile, the economic conditions are dire all over the regime-controlled territories and Assad is unable to provide basic services to citizens. Hence, the situation threatens to descend into another round of violence.
On Monday, China’s envoy to the UN called for the lifting of sanctions against Syria, mentioning the current pandemic and Guterres’ call to cease hostilities. However, the US and Europe do not seem to be responsive. A lifting of the sanctions would not mean relief for the Syrian people, but further empowerment of the regime. It would also mean enabling Assad to complete his goal of recapturing all of Syria by force. On the contrary, Washington is seeking to speed up the enforcement of the so-called Caesar Act, which imposes sanctions on individuals and entities dealing with the current Syrian regime.
If Russia joins the US and Turkey in their quest for stability in Syria, it might put pressure on Assad to make some concessions, particularly accepting that international aid organizations should be able to deliver relief to the Syrian people without any interference from his forces. The regime has been very intrusive in the work of relief organizations and large chunks of aid often find their way into the pockets of regime profiteers. So an agreement between Turkey and the US, if followed by an understanding with Russia, could help contain Assad and establish some stability in the short to medium term.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a Ph.D. in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.