US lacks leverage as assault on Syrian enclave looms

Syrian civil defense members search near a burned vehicle and personal belongings at a site in Hass town after an airstrike by pro-regime forces on the south of Idlib province on September 8, 2018. (AFP / Amer AlHamwe)
Updated 09 September 2018
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US lacks leverage as assault on Syrian enclave looms

  • Syrian government and Russian warplanes targeted the province’s southern edge
  • US officials have cautioned Syrian President Bashar Assad against "recklessly attacking" Idlib

WASHINGTON: Despite dire US warnings and fears of a humanitarian disaster, the Trump administration has little leverage to stop Russia, Iran and Syria pressing ahead with a massive military assault against Syria’s northwest Idlib province.
Washington has threatened military action in case of a chemical weapons attack but its mixed messaging on retaining a US presence in Syria and a cut in aid has diminished its already limited influence over the seven-year conflict.
So the administration, which has criticized former President Barack Obama for his inaction on Syria after the war started in 2011, risks appearing powerless to prevent the three nations’ plan to retake Syria’s last rebel-held area. It’s an operation that many warn will cause major bloodshed among a vulnerable population of 3 million people.
And on Saturday, Syrian government and Russian warplanes targeted the province’s southern edge in what activists described as the most intense airstrikes in weeks. More than 60 air raids killed at least four civilians in southern Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and rescue workers.
While the new US special envoy for Syria said this week that America will stay in Syria until the complete eradication of the Daesh group, there’s little assurance that President Donald Trump won’t again seek the withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 US troops in the country. And in a sign of the administration’s shrinking commitment to Syria, it has pulled more than $200 million in stabilization funding for liberated areas, telling other nations they should step up to pay.
A summit in Tehran on Friday between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen as a chance for a diplomatic solution before a full-scale assault on Idlib. The three nations are all tacitly allied against IS and in support of a unified, stable Syria, but have differing views of how to achieve those ends.
After Friday’s talks, the UN envoy for Syria told the UN Security Council there were indications that the three leaders intend to continue talking to avoid a catastrophe. But above all, the summit highlighted the stark differences among these allies of convenience, with Putin and Rouhani opposing Erdogan’s call for a cease-fire.
As they discussed the fate of Idlib, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was talking tough in New York, telling the Security Council that the United States would consider any assault on the province as a “dangerous escalation” of the conflict that has already claimed more than 400,000 lives and forced more than 5 million Syrians to flee the country.
“If (Syrian President Bashar) Assad, Russia, and Iran continue, the consequences will be dire,” said Haley, who was chairing the council meeting. “The Assad regime must halt its offensive ... Russia and Iran, as countries with influence over the regime, must stop this catastrophe. It is in their power to do so.”
Those remarks capped a week of rising US rhetoric opposing the Idlib operation.
On Monday, Trump tweeted: “President Bashar Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!“
A day later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expanded on the tweet, and renewed calls for the conflict to be resolved through the UN-led Geneva Process, which has been stalled for years. And on Thursday, the man Pompeo chose to be his point-man on getting the Geneva process back on track, veteran diplomat James Jeffrey, reiterated Trump’s message, saying the US would use all the “tools” it has to respond to a chemical attack.
Another “tool” in the US arsenal is economic pressure. The US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on nine people and companies for assisting weapons or fuel transfers to the Assad regime on Thursday. But sanctions have been ineffectual since they first began to be applied during the Obama administration.
Even American airstrikes launched against the Assad government have had limited impact in the past.
Twice before the US has resorted to missile strikes in response to chemical weapons attacks, only to see them used again. As Syrian forces prepare for the assault on Idlib, US and UN officials again see signs that those internationally prescribed weapons are being readied for the battlefield.
“There’s lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared,” Jeffrey told reporters Thursday.
Officials and analysts will be watching Idlib closely over the next week ahead of UN-led talks on Syria in Geneva on Sept. 14.
“The Trump administration is really at a Hail Mary moment,” said Nicholas Heras, a Syria analyst and fellow at the Center for New American Security. Idlib is the last opportunity for the US to increase leverage in Syria, he said, and if the province falls before the Geneva talks, Trump administration efforts to re-engage with peace talks will likely fail.
Heras warned that the Trump team is late to formulate a coherent Syria policy.
“It’s like trying to save the house as it’s burning down,” he said.


Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

Displaced Syrian children attend class at a makeshift school in the village of Muhandiseen, in the south western countryside of the Aleppo province, on September 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 35 min ago
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Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

  • Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side

ALEPPO, Syria: In rebel-held northern Syria, displaced children sit or lie on the ground of an unfinished villa, bending over their notebooks to apply themselves as they write the day’s lesson.
Four teachers instruct around 100 children — girls and boys aged six to 12 — at the makeshift school in an opposition-held area in the west of the northern province of Aleppo.
Between the bare walls of the villa abandoned mid-construction, children sit or lie on sheets or plain carpets, their small backpacks cast by their side.
Dubbed “Buds of Hope,” the teaching facility has no desks, library or even working toilets.
Instead, the air wafts in from beyond the pine trees outside through the gaping windows in the cement wall.
Dressed in a bright blue T-shirt and jeans, her hair neatly tied back in a pony tail, a barefoot girl kneels over her book, carefully writing.
“This isn’t a school,” says 11-year-old Ali Abdel Jawad.
“There aren’t any classrooms, no seats, nothing. We’re sitting on the ground,” he says.
In one classroom, a gaggle of veiled young girls sit on a bench, as the teacher explains the lesson to one of their male counterparts near a rare white board.
In another, the school’s only female teacher perches on a plastic chair, as her students gather around on the floor, their backs against the wall.

Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side.
The children — as well as their teachers — have been displaced from their homes in other parts of Syria due to the seven-year war, a teacher told an AFP photographer.
Some hail from Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, a former rebel stronghold that fell back under regime control in April after a blistering offensive and surrender deals.
Others come from the central provinces of Hama or Homs.
A dry fountain lies in the courtyard outside the villa’s elegant facade, where girls link arms and swing around in a circle.
Schools in opposition-held areas are generally funded by aid organizations, but have in the past been hit by bombardment.
“We’re always scared of bombardment and of the situation in general,” says one of the teachers, giving his name as Mohammed.
The building lies in rebel-held territory adjacent to regime-controlled parts of Aleppo city to the east, but also the major opposition stronghold of Idlib to the west.
Some three million people live in the Idlib province and adjacent areas of the neighboring Aleppo and Latakia provinces, around half of them displaced by war in other parts of Syria.
Earlier this month, many feared a regime assault on Idlib, but last week Damascus ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara announced a deal to temporarily halt it.