Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. is calling for a no-fly zone in the wake of the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike launched by the Syrian regime near Idlib — but the Pentagon remains weary of wading into Syria’s civil war.
The deaths of the 33 soldiers of NATO ally Turkey is the gravest provocation by Syrian and Russian troops since Turkey shot down a Russian jet in 2015.
Turkish air and artillery assets have since retaliated against the Syrian army by pounding the regime’s armor and truck-mobile rocket artillery systems. Videos posted by Ankara-based Anadolu Agency depicting devastating Turkish military strikes have been widely distributed across social media.
The BBC reported, citing the Turkish government, that Turkish forces have struck 200 government targets taking out nearly 309 troops.
But calls for aggressive U.S. military action to bolster its NATO ally are likely to fall on deaf ears as the White House and Pentagon continue to seek an exit from the Syrian civil war quagmire.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke with Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar Thursday regarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime’s “brutal aggression in Idlib” and the humanitarian crisis in the region, according to a readout of the call provided by Alyssa Farah, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
“As President Trump said on Tuesday, and as discussed in today’s call, we are exploring ways the United States can work together with Turkey and the international community," Farah said in the call readout.
NATO held a meeting with Turkey under Article 4 — which can be requested by a NATO ally when their security is threatened.
“Allies condemn the continued indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime and its backer Russia in Idlib province. We call on them to stop their offensive,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, said in a news release.
The Syrian civil war continues to be a minefield for U.S. Pentagon and policy makers as America’s NATO ally continues to press the fight against Russian and Syrian regime troops in Syria’s Idlib province.
Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East program for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted that people should “throttle back” their expectations of a U.S. response to recent incidents in Idlib province.
“A short-term US response may be to send USAF [U.S. Air Force] fighters to Ankara to patrol the border, as was done after the November 2015 shoot down,” Stein tweeted.
But the U.S. has been reluctant to wade into the greater politics of Syria’s civil war. There are roughly 500 U.S. troops in northern Syria helping Kurdish-led forces combat ISIS militants.
Esper told lawmakers Wednesday that “there has not been that discussion about reengaging in the civil war. We think the best path forward is for the UN process that is underway.”
Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, echoed those sentiments during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
“To my knowledge, there’s no intent nor plans to reengage in the Syrian civil war, nor to put troops back on the Syrian Turkish border,” Milley said.
Any U.S. military support to Ankara is questionable, as relations between Turkey and the U.S. remain strained over America’s support to Kurdish forces in northern Syria who Turkey deems a terror group. And Ankara’s decision to field the Russian S-400 missile air defense system has further soured the alliance.
On Thursday Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, called on Turkey to drop the S-400 as Russian troops continue to kill Turkish troops.
“They see what Russia is; they see what they’re doing now. And if they are attacking Turkish troops, then that should outweigh everything else that is happening between Turkey and Russia,” Hutchinson said Thursday during a briefing.
For now, U.S. and NATO support to Turkey following the recent airstrike that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers appears to be mostly words of support.
“The United States isn’t going to risk war for events in Idlib, it’s just that simple," Stein told Military Times. “So we’re looking at statements and, maybe, some show of force inside Turkey.”
In February, Bloomberg reported that Turkey made a request for Patriot missile batteries to deploy to Turkey’s southern border to protect its forces from Syrian rockets.
A U.S. official told Military Times on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record that the U.S. was aware of the Turkey’s request to deploy Patriot systems near the Syrian border, but no decision had been made.
“We continue to have discussions with the government of Turkey about the troubling situation in Idlib,” the U.S. official said.
In late February, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi sounded alarm bells over the worsening humanitarian disaster since a cease-fire between combative sides in Syria’s Idlib province collapsed.
The UN says nearly 900,000 have fled their homes in Idlib over the last several months.
“The world is sitting on its hands and watching the destruction of Idlib by Assad, Iran, and the Russians. This is one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in decades and the brutal aggression of Assad supported by Iran and Russia needs to come to an end," Graham said in a statement.
But Graham’s push for a no-fly zone over Idlib could push the U.S. into a broader conflict with Russia and Syrian troops as Stein explained that Russian forces currently dominate the skies over the embattled province.
“Establishing a rival one [no-fly zone] means shooting at Russians,” Stein said.
“I am confident if the world, led by the United States, pushed back against Iran, Russia, and Assad that they would stand down, paving the way for political negotiations to end this war in Syria,” Graham said in a media release.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to questions about possible U.S, military support to Turkey following recent events in Idlib.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.