Fighting Russia to Save Al Qaeda is NOT ‘America First’

An interview with Syria expert Johannes de Jong.

By John Zmirak Published on March 2, 2020

Turkey is pressuring NATO to support it in a potential war with Syria and Russia. It has shipped hundreds of thousands of refugees to cross the Greek border, and threatens to invoke the NATO treaty.

Last month, Stream contributor and Syria expert Johannes de Jong warned that Turkey was trying to get the U.S. bogged down in its attempt to expand into Syria. As de Jong explained then, Turkey is trying to grab the province of Idlib, using al Qaeda militants and other jihadis. They’ve controlled the city for years, while posing as “moderate rebels.”

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, along with most of the GOP establishment, bought that pose. They urged the U.S. to aid them, even if it meant shooting down Russian planes. Instead, President Trump worked with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include Christian militias, and which defend religious rights. We’ve asked de Jong for an update.

What’s happening now? What’s new?

Assad and Putin decided to finish off al Qaeda in Idlib, which is understandable. However as usual they don’t consider the civilian population. They target civilians and armed jihadists in equal measure. That pushes millions to the Syrian-Turkish border. Erdogan decided to ensure his control of Idlib through his al Qaeda allies and jihadist proxies. He even sent a sizeable part of the Turkish army into Idlib. Turkey started to attack the Syrian army. Russia subsequently bombed Turkish soldiers in Idlib. So now we have Turkey and its proxies waging a direct war against Assad’s army. And Russia supporting Assad. It’s an awful mess.

Another Stupid War?

Would you say that al Qaeda is using the civilian population of Idlib as human shields? What do you say to people who claim the U.S. is obliged to make a humanitarian intervention in Idlib?

People who claim that do not understand that the U.S. cannot support al Qaeda and other jihadists. They do not understand that millions of civilians ended up under al Qaeda rule. I do not have reports of al Qaeda using them as human shields but that does not matter given the dense proximity of civilians and jihadists. The civilians in Idlib cannot go anywhere as Turkey built a wall to stop them and shoots at them if they try to get over it.

How have the jihadists in Idlib treated Syrian Christians and other religious minorities where they have taken control?

Terribly. Read the reports of how these jihadists are persecuting them, destroying their churches and worse.

A NATO War With Russia?

Turkey just took a lot of casualties from Syrian regime rocket fire. Now it’s demanding that the Assad regime and its Russian allies withdraw to some previous cease-fire line. And Turkey’s threatening to escalate this conflict into a full-scale war with Syria. Is that correct?

Yes and since last weekend Turkey followed through on that threat. As a consequence, Assad’s forces are being pushed back, as the jihadists now have the support of Turkish rockets, heavy weapons, drones and aircraft.

Erdogan and his Muslim Brotherhood want to rebuild the Ottoman Caliphate by any means possible. They support any terror group in the Middle East and North Africa.

Is there any danger of a declared war between Turkey and Russia itself? That would give Turkey a claim to help from NATO, thanks to our outdated alliance with a country now run by Islamists. Should we worry about that? Could the Trump administration let its establishment-dominated State Department drag the U.S. into such a conflict?

Yes this risk is clear and is already happening. Indeed the State Department is apparently pushing the Pentagon to send Patriot missiles and other arms to Turkey. Defense Secretary Esper, however, has ruled it out. I did not see any statement from Secretary Pompeo. So it is unclear if the White House takes this idea seriously. All reasonable people need to be aware of the pressure on the U.S. to do so will help Turkey protect al Qaeda.

Is the State Department going rogue, pushing a different policy than the President on Syria?

Not the State Department as a whole I think. But surely some high-ranking civil servants are trying to. I think it is easy to end it if the President or Pompeo make their policy clear. The U.S. will not support Turkey’s operation in Idlib in any way.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s Warning

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard recently came out for a change of policy in Syria. Do you think she’s right?

Yes, as far as it goes. But Gabbard doesn’t fully understand Syria. She doesn’t see that Assad is now a puppet of Iran. She also needs to understand that Iran is a threat the U.S. cannot ignore. If she would call for strong support for the Syrian Democratic Forces she would be spot on.

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If an open, declared conflict erupts between Turkey and Syria, or even Russia, how will that affect Syrian Christians? Would the SDF take sides?

The SDF has already stated clearly it is not and will not be part of the conflict in Idlib. The SDF will defend itself against Turkish aggression if Turkey attacks. Syrian Christians in general will be better off if al Qaeda is kicked out of Syria. But the war is not going well for Assad at the moment. That might ultimately hurt them. The problem is that Assad is depending on Iran. Given the coronavirus situation and the sanctions, Iran is in a very weak position. So Assad is now weaker as well.

The New Ottoman Empire

Is Erdogan trying to build an empire? He’s intervening in Syria and Libya, and covertly helping jihadists kill Christians as far as away as Nigeria.

It is very simple. Erdogan and his Muslim Brotherhood want to rebuild the Ottoman Caliphate by any means possible. They support any terror group in the Middle East and North Africa to that end.

What leverage is Turkey using to try to force NATO to help it?

Yesterday I got a very worrying report from Greece where Turkey is weaponizing these poor people from Afghanistan against Europe. They fled from Afghanistan and Iran to Turkey. Turkey is literally putting tens of thousands of these poor people on buses. Then unloading them on the Greek border to storm it, and create a new refugee crisis in Europe. Europe needs to respond with sanctions against Turkey to stop this abuse of Afghan refugees against Europe.

What should President Trump do?

Stick to the support for the SDF and stay out of Turkey and Idlib. This is the best for the U.S. and for his re-election campaign. Not giving up on the SDF is popular and the right thing to do. Supporting Turkey and al Qaeda is unpopular and the wrong thing to do. In that sense it is really clear what President Trump should decide.


Johannes de Jong is director of the Christian Political Foundation for Europe. He has been working with the Syriac Christians of Iraq and Syria, the Yazidi’s, Turkmen people of Iraq and Syrian Kurds. The CPFE is the European political Foundation of the European Christian Political Movement.

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