Even as the authoritarian leader consolidates control over the western part of his country and U.S. troops reportedly prepare to depart their footholds in the east, retired Adm. James Stavridis said: “Syria as a nation probably does not survive long-term in its current form.”
Retired Turkish Rear Admiral Ali Deniz Kutluk holds the opposite view, reflecting a split seen between their two governments, which are also NATO allies.
The disagreement is felt in real time for U.S. troops posted near Turkey’s southern border in contentious Syrian towns that were liberated from the Islamic State by Americans and their largely Kurdish partner forces.
“Turkey’s foreign policy for decades has been based on no problems with neighbors, and this is good until your neighbors have problems,” Stavridis said at a panel hosted by the Turkish Heritage Organization in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
“Turkey was forthright early on in criticizing Assad," he added, pointing to the Syrian regime’s indiscriminate bombing, use of chemical weapons and reluctance to accept democratic reforms.
Now, though, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have squashed rebel strongholds across western Syria, causing anxiety for U.S. officials who worry about a resurgence of ISIS in the region and the growth of Iranian influence.
Turkey, meanwhile, is ready to accept Assad as the victor.
“Turkey and Syria will at the end of the day have to cooperate," Kutluk said. "But it must remain a Syrian prerogative to defend their soil. ... We both know that you cannot eliminate all terrorist entities.”
Also at stake is the future of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey views as terrorists. Some Kurds hoped that by allying with the U.S. in fighting ISIS they would be rewarded with statehood in the northern part of Syria. That dream was squashed by Turkey, a key NATO ally.
Turkey opposes a Kurdish state, citing the ethnically Kurdish terrorists it has fought for several decades within its own country. Turkish military operations across Syria’s border in places like Afrin also worry observers who fear Ankara will displace ethnic Kurds if the U.S. pulls out of the region.
But Kutluk said that shouldn’t be a concern. “If they are not terrorists, of course they should stay there for good,” he said.
Kutluk added that Ankara and Damascus may soon fall back on the 1998 Adana Accord, an agreement to cooperate on countering terrorism between their countries, which may ease U.S. concerns over ISIS.
But that doesn’t satisfy U.S. officials on the issue of Iran and the militant groups it sponsors.
“This Iranian element is part of the reason the United States wants to remain engaged in the region," Stavridis said. “Operating in that region provides a balance against … Shia dominance coupled with [Assad’s] Alawite dominance in Syria.”
Kutluk was skeptical over allegations made by the U.S. military in recent months that it needs to hold bases in Syria, like al-Tanf on the Iraq-Syria border, in order to prevent the movement of Iran-aligned militants.
“Iran has been there over 3,000 years. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to mess with Iran,” Kutluk said. "There will be repercussions.”
As for the Iranian presence on Syrian soil, “I think it’s exaggerated," Kutluk added.
The Pentagon has long cited Iran’s proliferation of advanced conventional weapons and funding for Shia militias like Hezbollah as reasons to counter its influence in the region. A display of captured Iranian weapons exports is hosted at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington.
“Iran is not, in my view, an innocent actor, who if we leave alone, they will eave us alone," Stavridis said.
The U.S. admiral added that he sees a resolution to Syria likely coming in the form of a “buffer zone.”
“The way the Balkans were resolved was through a process of partition," he said. “Partition between the Sunni segments of Syria and the Alawite segments. … How far we have to go remains to be seen."
Kutluk didn’t think a buffer zone would work. That “wouldn’t fly in the United Nations Security council because of Russian resistance,” he said.
Despite the tensions over Syria, as well as Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, both former admirals agreed NATO was fundamental to both countries.
“It’s extremely important we have Turkey inside the alliance,” Stavridis said. “There is no problem from my perspective with Turkey and Russia having a warm, collegial relationship.”
“The alliance cannot change, because there is no alliance if changed," Kutluk said.
Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.