After direct military confrontations between the Assad regime and Turkey in Syria’s Idlib province, USIP’s Dr. Elie Abouaoun explains how the Turkish and Russian governments are trying to contain the fallout, saying “I do not think any party has an interest right now in provoking a full-blown escalation.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: There's been some developments over the last couple of days. Turkey, for example, deploying F-16 fighter jets against government forces in northwestern Syria on Monday, which is an escalation of the conflict there. This is after six Turkish soldiers were killed by artillery strikes. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said that as many as 35 troops had been neutralized. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is a monitoring group based in Britain, said the number of military personnel killed is at least 13, but Mr. Erdoğan is warning Russia, which backs the Syrian government and which controls the airspace in western Syria, not to prevent Turkey from retaliating.

Tim Farley: That is just one part of the ongoing saga in Syria where President Bashar al-Assad remains in power despite the fact the protestations, or at least the assertions, from the United States for a long time that his days were numbered. Let's get some perspective with Dr. Elie Abouaoun, who's the United States Institute of Peace Middle East [and North Africa] director from the Middle East/ North Africa Tunisia hub of the USIP. The Twitter handle is @elie022. Elie Abouaoun, welcome back to POTUS. Thank you for being here.

Elie Abouaoun: Thank you very much. Good morning, sir.

Tim Farley: Explain to us the status of right now, because I get a little confused, because one moment it seems like Turkey is working with Russia and the next moment it seems like they're at odds. And of course, Bashar al-Assad is still in power. What is it we need to most understand about this?

Elie Abouaoun: Yeah, thank you. Well, yes. I mean, there was a high level of cooperation between the Turkish armed forces and Russian armed forces in northern Syria, and we've seen even joint patrols in some areas. What happened in Idlib in the last few days, from my perspective at least, is that there was this incident where Turkish soldiers were injured. Basically that. And this triggered the whole chain reaction from the Turks to make sure that the Syrian regime is not crossing the border of whatever they agreed on with the Russians. Previously, there was some sort of an arrangement between the Russians and the Turks about how to at least contain what was happening in Idlib, and it seems that the Syrian regime has crossed some borders set by this arrangement, which basically triggered this reaction from the Turks.

Tim Farley: Where does this lead, then?

Elie Abouaoun: I think what's happening now is that there is an attempt by the Russians and the Turks to contain the situation and to basically ask the Syrian regime to go back to the status quo. It will depend on the outcome of these diplomatic efforts between the Russians and the Turks. I do not think that any of the parties has an interest right now in provoking a full-blown escalation. There is a likeliness that these diplomatic efforts will succeed in at least containing the situation.

Tim Farley: As I said at the outset of this interview, Dr. Abouaoun, the United States for years under President Obama had said, that's when it started saying, that Assad's days were numbered there. The number just keeps growing. Is there any sense that there is a change in the offing in the leadership in Syria?

Elie Abouaoun: It depends on how you look at the regime in Syria. There is Assad himself as a person that is the family and the clan, and there are the institutions of the regime. We all know that the Russians have invested heavily in maintaining the institutions. Of course, the person of President Assad and his family were important at some point to maintain these institutions at least from the perspective of the Russians, so they showed him up. But I don't know how viable this option is. We have indications from different communities within Syria that there is kind of a grievance against the person of the president and the family specifically. But these groups would not go as far as undermining the whole regime because they are afraid of a vacuum.

Elie Abouaoun: They're afraid that if a vacuum happens, then there will be a situation that basically creates an existential threat to them. They still prefer to deal with Assad even though they don't like him, rather than finding themselves in a complete chaos. The moment the Russians would find a formula to reassure these communities that even if Assad goes, the institutions are now able to contain or to maintain stability. I don't think that Assad will stay long after that point.

Tim Farley: Oh really? Wow. Okay.

Elie Abouaoun: I mean, yeah, it's not about his person. It's about the institutions. This is what the Russians are trying to work on is basically to rebuild the institutions of the regime in a way that even if Assad goes away, Syria doesn't fall into chaos.

Tim Farley: Again, Ellie Abouaoun is with us, United States Institute of Peace Middle East/North Africa director. A story from Reuters, and this is fairly new, the U.S. has evidently halted a secretive military intelligence cooperation program with Turkey that for years had helped Turkey target Kurdish PKK militants, that according to four military officials, not on the record, but telling Reuters the decision to indefinitely suspend the program, which has not been previously reported, was made in response to Turkey's cross-border military incursion into Syria in October, the U.S. official said, revealing the extent of the damage to ties between NATO allies from the incident. If true, what is the significance of this?

Elie Abouaoun: Honestly, I don't have enough information about this matter, so I need to know more in order to answer the question.

Tim Farley: Okay. No, that's okay. I prefer your being able to say that you can't answer the question rather than come up with something just off the top of your head. I am curious about where the U.S. relationship with Turkey stands right now in your opinion.

Elie Abouaoun: I mean, it is fluctuating. I mean, Turkey and the U.S. reached a point where both parties realized that they cannot stay on a hostile trajectory. I mean, there were attempts by parties in Turkey and in the U.S. to mend at least part of the relationship, and I think they succeeded in mending parts of the relationship. I don't see a whole strategic alliance between both countries or a full alignment as it was before on several issues in the region, but I can definitely see that in some areas the corporation has survived somehow. I think this is in the best interest of both countries.

Tim Farley: Finally, is there a role that the United States should play in either intercession or at least somehow influencing the conflict in Syria, especially with reference to Turkey and Russia?

Elie Abouaoun: Well, five years ago I would have said yes. Today, I think that the Syrian conflict is at the stage where the influence of the U.S. became minimal, at least directly on the conflict. There are always possibilities for the U.S. to leverage their influence in shaping the discussion about reconstruction of some areas in Syria, about the issue of the Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries. But directly on the conflict itself and the fate of the regime, I think that there is much less influence.

Tim Farley: Dr. Abouaoun, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.

Elie Abouaoun: Thank you very much. Thank you sir. Have a good day.

Tim Farley: Elie Abouaoun is the United States Institute of Peace Middle East/North Africa director, Middle East/North Africa Tunisia hub for the USIP and his thoughts on Syria and the developing story there. He is tweeting @elie022.

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