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While the world focuses on Iran, a tragedy is ‘unfolding before our eyes’ in Idlib

By July 20, 2019June 12th, 2023Print

As published in Al Monitor

US President Donald Trump asked his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, “Please, take it easy with Idlib,” when they met at the G-20 Summit in Osaka on June 28.

Russia had been providing air support for the Syrian government’s military offensive in Idlib province, which the top UN humanitarian official described as a “humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes.” With most of the world’s attention on the threat of further escalation between the United States and Iran in the Gulf, the disaster in Idlib continues to play out with strikingly little urgency.

Unless Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad call off the siege, the unfolding disaster almost certainly will continue.

“They have 30,000 terrorists in Idlib Province,” Trump told the press. As for the city of Idlib, Trump added, “You have three million people. And, you know, getting terrorists is okay, but you don’t want to kill 3 million people or a million people to get the terrorists.”

The conundrum in Idlib is real.

No question, 30,000 fighters, or even 20,000, as the United Nations reported in January, or 20,000-30,000, as General Joseph Dunford, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in September 2018, are all big numbers in the counter-terrorism business. Michael Mulroy, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said in May, “Idlib is essentially the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world.”

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group linked to al-Qaeda, currently has the upper hand among the armed gangs controlling Idlib. The Institute for the Study of War warns that Idlib is the focus of a strategy by the Islamic State (IS) to reconstitute. Such groups split, morph and reconstitute based on circumstances. Idlib may well be the incubator for the next iteration of IS and al-Qaeda.

There is also a huge civilian population in Idlib, which is one reason chemical weapons are Trump’s red line there. He regularly refers to the White House statement of Sept. 4, 2018, that warns that chemical weapons use in Idlib would be a “reckless escalation” necessitating a swift and appropriate response. Beyond that, the US position is, more or less, “Please, take it easy.”

Putin will need to provide a lot more than air support to Syria, whose army is struggling to hold ground, to help Assad retake Idlib, which could be the last major battle of the agonizingly long and bloody civil war. In addition, doing so would entail all sorts of risks and consequences. Syrian opposition groups are reporting that Russian special forces already may be assisting the Syrian army, although Moscow denies it. As in Aleppo in 2016, the reports of Russian special forces were never officially confirmed.

Putin also doesn’t want to put his friend Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a bind (more on this below). An influx of tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey, which is already hosting 3.5 million displaced Syrians, is a non-starter for Erdogan. Turkey and Russia had been coordinating on a demilitarized zone in Idlib, but that appears to have fallen apart.

Critically, Turkey has proved unable to isolate and break off the terrorists from the non-terrorists, and there are questions about Ankara’s ties to HTS and some of the other bad actors in Idlib, as Fehim Tastekin reports.

The catch of course is that military action to take out the terrorists in Idlib would be a bloodbath, possibly exceeding what occurred in Aleppo in 2016, as there is no escape hatch for HTS and its cohorts this time, except through Turkey. Some of the militants and armed gangs, as well as anti-Assad rebels not linked to the terrorists or jihadis, it will be recalled, escaped from Aleppo to Idlib, thanks to Turkish mediation. There will be no accommodations in Idlib if there is a final offensive; there is nowhere left to go. Both sides could exact a terrible toll on Idlib’s citizens.

There may be a consensus that the West is okay, for now, with the terrorists boxed in in Idlib, which has become a kind of penal colony where the most violent inmates rule over the civilians. The United States and the international community are warning Russia and Syria against an escalation, and Turkey is obviously opposed to one. Washington and its European allies are also loath to grant Assad, and by extension Putin and Iran, their perhaps decisive victory in Syria. So the Syrian siege continues, unabated, mostly below the radar, at least relative to the urgency of the focus on Iran’s actions in the Gulf.

That leaves the people of Idlib, including many of the Syrian opposition with no links to terrorists, to pay a terrible price. The 3 million people of Idlib live under the tyranny of HTS and armed gangs, and the terror of the Syrian and Russian bombs, and they have no way out of their tragedy while the world’s attention is elsewhere.

Putin seeks options to capitalize on impasse in Syria safe zone talks

Meanwhile, Putin senses an opening in an impasse in US-Turkish talks on a safe zone that, according to Amberin Zaman, “have hit a wall.”

“Turkey wants to take the lead in the proposed zone,” Zaman writes. “Its main goal is to snuff out the YPG [People’s Protection Units] both politically and militarily. [US Syria envoy James] Jeffrey insisted, however, that differences with Ankara were mainly over the depth rather than the nature of the buffer zone, which he described as ‘a functional military accommodation.’”

The differences, however, do not appear “functional.” Last week, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told Acting US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, “The only military force that is ready, competent and appropriate for the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria is the Turkish Armed Forces,” Metin Gurcan reports. Semih Idiz adds that Turkey has a sense of “urgency” following reports that the United Kingdom and France will send troops at the United States’ request.

All this, in Erdogan’s score, is construed as the United States providing military cover for the institutionalization of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and YPG in eastern Syria. Turkey considers the PYD and YPG as terrorists groups to be eradicated, not accommodated. Trump said that the only reason Erdogan has held back from attacking the Syrian Kurdish groups is because he had asked him not to attack them.

The breakdown in safe zone talks allows Putin to play to Erdogan’s concerns about US intentions in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “Sharp contradictions are building up between the Kurds and the Arab tribes on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, where the Americans wish to establish a Kurdish quasi-state entity.” While the United States is pushing for Syrian Kurdish groups to reconcile, as Shiva Ibrahim reports, Russia can continue to pitch the need for an eventual accommodation between the Syrian government and the Kurds, as Al-Monitor reported.

The United States still holds the key cards in the east because of its relationship with the Syrian Kurdish groups, its leadership of the D-ISIS coalition, its military assets, its allies and partners in the region and its pivotal role in deciding whether there will be international aid and support to Syria. Putin, however, will take every opportunity to show Erdogan that Russia, not the United States, is the more reliable ally for Turkey.

Putin wins on S-400 sale to Turkey

That brings us to probably the biggest crisis in US-Turkish relations in recent memory: Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 missile defense system, which will spark US sanctions and end Turkish participation in the F-35 program, as Jack Detsch reports.

Erdogan had hoped that his bonhomie with Trump would hold off sanctions and slow the free fall in US-Turkish relations, as Al-Monitor reported. Even if he wanted to, Trump can’t save Turkey from the consequences of the S-400 purchase.

No question, the S-400 sale is a win for Putin and another sign of his strategy to leverage his weaker hand, relative to the United States, regarding military sales and cooperation in the region. “Moscow long ago figured out that the American grip on the region hinges to a large degree on its military component,” explains Maxim Suchkov. “Being unable to compete with the United States in physical presence nor in military procurements — and, frankly, seeing no need to pursue this path — Russia has nonetheless gradually filled niches by selling arms and forging associated military-technical partnerships. For some regional states, such as Egypt and Iraq, Russian proposals offered a solution to reduce their political-military dependence on the United States. For others — the Saudis, for instance — military dealings with Russia are a bargaining chip in talks with Americans to get a better deal for themselves. For the rest of those dealing with both Moscow and Washington, it is a mix of both sets of incentives.”