Security and Foreign Policy

An American Narrative Needed in Syria Against Stronger Rivals

As Turkey continues to flex its regional muscles and Russia uses mercenary forces in Syria, a cohesive narrative by the United States is missing. Steven Osborne analyzes the power dynamics in the Middle East, where Turkish and Russian influence is expanding, while U.S. influence wanes.


The challenges posed by the Assad government, Iran, Hezbollah, and Sunni jihadists are well known. However, the United States now faces challenges from more credible actors: Turkey and Russia. The goal of the United States has always been twofold: the replacement of the Assad regime with a democratically elected government and the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria’s western regions. These goals befit its role as an enforcer of the liberal democratic viewpoint. Yet after roughly seven years, the former goal has not been realized, and there has not been a consistent American narrative. Turkey and Russia are taking note and beginning to test American resolve in Syria.

First, Turkey, a NATO ally, decided to flex its regional muscle and invade Syria. Relations between Turkey and the United States have been in a steady decline over the past few years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has utilized the failed military coup against him to solidify his power. This move has freed him to pursue a harder line against his enemies, both foreign and domestic. Recently, the focus of his ire has been the Kurdish minority within Turkey and the Kurdish militias operating just outside Turkish borders in Iraq and Syria. Turkish troops are crossing into Syria with the aim of attacking Kurdish forces.

Many of these Kurdish forces are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), aligned with the United States against the Islamic State. Now that there is a vacuum by the near defeat of the Islamic State, Turkey is stepping in to fill the void. Erdogan has placed the United States in the difficult position of choosing between a NATO ally, who is behaving belligerently, and other regional allies, who did a significant amount of heavy lifting against the Islamic State.

Turkey is testing the limits of the NATO alliance. Erdogan is aware of the true reason Turkey belongs to NATO in the first place: to act as a geopolitical check on Russia. The United States even maintains a military installation on Turkish soil, which is helpful in securing air superiority in the Syrian conflict. Turkey may not hold all the cards; however, they hold enough of them to feel comfortable testing the limits of American patience.

Another key test for the United States is Russian involvement in Syria. A recent dramatic development involved Russian mercenaries killed in battle after attempting to overrun an American military position. While reports vary as to the number of Russian deaths and the United States has not accused the Russian government of any direct involvement, there is no question that Russian individuals were involved. Russia was accused in the past of using unofficial “mercenary” forces to achieve geopolitical aims, so it is possible that these forces had some coordination with Moscow.

The United States is not accustomed to sharing the field of combat with another power that is anywhere close to matching American capabilities. While the American military outmatches Russia in terms of firepower and technology, Russian forces do not overwhelmingly outmatch the US. While neither Russia nor the United States has an interest in sparking a devastating war, there are diverging interests at play between these two powers in Syria. Russia’s threat to the United States in Syria has less to do with military conflict and more to do with geopolitical and diplomatic maneuvering.

Russia has strategic reasons for supporting the incumbent Syrian government. An Alawite minority government is a more reliable partner, and Russia’s long-held interest in a warm water Mediterranean port is made possible by cooperation with the Syrian government. On the other hand, American opposition to Assad is rooted in upholding its reputation as the defender of liberal democratic principles. Under the Trump administration, the United States has moved away from its role as enforcer of the liberal democratic viewpoint; however, for geopolitical reasons, it must ensure that rival powers do not gain an unchecked foothold in the region.

Under international law, Russia has made a more direct justification for intervention. Intervention is permitted when the highest available government authority invites another to intervene. The Syrian government invited Russian forces to assist in the fight against rebels and the rising Islamic State. American involvement is premised on the concept of “self-defense” as noted by Dean Michael P. Scharf of Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Both are legitimate legal bases for involvement, but Russia is paradoxically claiming a superior position when it comes to the legality of its actions.

Legality and diplomacy are tools to establish a narrative. The Turkish and Russian narratives are clear. Now the United States will need to develop its own for success in Syria.

M. Steven Osborne is an attorney practicing in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He holds a Juris Doctorate and a Bachelor’s Degree in Politics and Policy from Liberty University.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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