Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking at the Atlantic Council’s Istanbul Summit on April 28, urged the United States to end its support for Kurdish rebels in Syria and to extradite a cleric Turkey says orchestrated a failed coup attempt in July of 2016; he also accused some European countries of harboring terrorists. 

Erdoğan’s remarks offered a preview of his upcoming meeting with US President Donald Trump in Washington on May 16. The Turkish leader had been unsuccessful in his efforts to convince former US President Barack Obama to drop his support for the Kurdish militias who have proven to be one of the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria. He was optimistic that he could open a new, and very different, chapter in the US-Turkey relationship with Trump.

US support for the Kurds could be a sticking point in that relationship. In April, Turkey conducted a series of airstrikes against the Kurdish militias. These operations potentially put Turkey and the United States on a collision course.

Describing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the YPG’s political arm, the Democratic Union party (PYD) as the “aborted children” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a group that both the United States and Turkey consider a terrorist organization—Erdoğan said these groups will, sooner or later, “bite the hand that feeds them.”

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White Helmets seek safe zones to protect civilians

As US sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have failed to end the war in Syria, the international community must exercise the political will to do so—and, in the meantime, establish safe zones that would put civilians out of harm’s way, according to two members of the Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), also known as the White Helmets.  

“The sanctions are not having the intended effect of stopping the war,” said Jehad Mahameed, a liaison officer for the SCD. Manal Abazeed, a volunteer with the White Helmets, called for world leaders, particularly US President Donald Trump, to exercise “the political will to stop this conflict.”

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While Russia was “probably surprised” by the US missile strike on a Syrian air base, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will respond with escalatory force, according to a former deputy secretary general of NATO.

“They’re surprised, but I don’t necessarily think their reaction will be to escalate the situation,” said Alexander Vershbow, who now serves as a distinguish fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. “The Russian reaction, while harsh in rhetoric… they’re going to try to draw a line around this incident,” he said.

“For the Russians, and I would hope for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, they would not provoke an open-ended conflict with the United States,” said Vershbow. However, he said, this incident “might convince the Russians to reign in their client more effectively than they ever have.”

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On April 6, US President Donald J. Trump announced that the United States had carried out a missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack by the Syrian government, which killed nearly eighty civilians on April 4.

Trump said the strike was in the “vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

Trump had been critical of former US President Barack Obama for failing to enforce red lines with regard to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. He called Assad’s use of sarin gas—a toxin only available on the regime—on civilians “an affront to humanity” that “could not be tolerated.”

While the White House had recently expressed that the United States would accept the “political reality” of Assad’s grip on power, Trump later said the chemical weapons attack “crosses many, many lines.”

World leaders have been divided in their reactions to the US strike. While Russia and Iran, supporters of Assad’s regime, have condemned the strikes, US allies across Europe have lauded Trump’s proactive approach to the conflict and intolerance of chemical weapon attacks on civilians.Both multilateral institutions such as the European Union and NATO, as well as individual nations, have also expressed their support for Washington and condemnation of Assad’s actions.

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US missile strikes cannot be a one-off response, said the Atlantic Council’s Frederic C. Hof

US missile strikes on a Syrian air base from where a deadly chemical weapons attack is believed to have been launched send a clear message that the United States is now “directly engaged” in addressing the mass homicide perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, said Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“The president’s top priority in Syria will continue to be the defeat of the so-called Islamic State, but in the wake of the chemical attack, the president realized that the Bashar al-Assad side of this problem is closely related to his top priority,” said Hof, noting that Assad’s brutal crackdown has helped recruitment for terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Hof, who served as special adviser for transition in Syria in US President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012, has been calling for a stronger US response to the war in Syria, both in and out of government. The war, which erupted in March 2011, has killed more than 450,000 people and created more than five million refugees.

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The United States has limited options when it comes to responding to the deadly chemical attack likely carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

The international community has so far imposed sanctions on Syria, which haven’t worked, said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “There is diplomacy, which in fairness we’ve been trying for a long time… That leaves the military option, or the military option combined with diplomacy. That’s something we haven’t done.”

If the military option is chosen, “We would either have to build an indigenous proxy force that can fight properly, or [the United States] and our allies have to do something in the country,” said Itani. The alternative to military and diplomatic action, he said, is “nothing. Those are our options.”

[UPDATE: The United States on April 6 carried out a missile strike in Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack. US President Donald J. Trump said he ordered the strike because it is in the “vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”]

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On March 29, Jordan will host the Arab League summit amid chaos across the Middle East.  There is speculation that Russia and Egypt are pressing the Arab League to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the summit in light of reports that Syrian military officers have visited Jordan and Egypt over the past few weeks. Assad’s presence at the summit could bring about a sea change in Syria’s relationship with a host of other Arab states. 

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On March 1, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime reached an agreement allowing Syrian regime forces to create a buffer zone between the Syrian regime and Syrian Democratic Forces around Manbij. The buffer zone serves as an attempt to prevent fighting between Turkish recruits and Kurdish forces. Listen to Rafik Hariri Center’s Senior Resident Fellow on Turkey, Aaron Stein's commentary on the agreement and how it could affect Turkey’s military campaign in Syria.

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In a recent interview with Al-Mayadeen television, Hezbollah’s number two Sheikh Naim Qasssem insisted that “Hezbollah would be the one deciding when to leave Syria, “which will take place when the party is guaranteed that ‘Syria as a resistance’ will remain.”

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While Moscow is re-classifying armed groups as terrorist organizations on the ground in Syria, and the new US administration is attempting to identify and enable partners in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) coalition in order to set policies, we are now faced with questions that have long haunted the Syrian armed opposition: Who is a partner for peace in Syria, and does the opposition include any allies for peace and for the fight against terrorism?

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