Idlib assault may escalate Syrian conflict to new level
The weak alliance between the three guarantors of the Astana process — Russia, Turkey and Iran — is being tested over Idlib following Friday’s summit in Tehran, with Moscow and Tehran rejecting the cease-fire Ankara called for. It is clear Idlib will become the apple of discord not only for the three guarantors, but for the whole Syrian peace process in general.
Idlib is the last stronghold of Syria’s opposition fighters, who are mixed up in the province with terrorists and civilians. There is an estimated 3.5 million people there, half of them displaced from other opposition strongholds taken by the Syrian government in the past two years. They all fled to Idlib after every truce that was reached throughout the country. This permitted Damascus to regain terrain and mass the remaining militant factions in one area.
International efforts, including those of the UN, to separate the internationally recognized terrorist gangs from the militant opposition have proved to be ineffective. This became the reason why all the fighters fled to Idlib together.
A political solution for Idlib appeared not to be in the plans of Damascus, Moscow or Tehran, with Russia’s stance being to eliminate the terrorists massed there as the first priority. Neither Tehran nor Moscow are talking about the inevitable mass civilian casualties in Idlib, unlike Turkey. But Ankara is concerned about Idlib through the prism of its own interests rather than through compassion for the Syrian people. Turkey expected to have a hand in the political settlement of the Syrian crisis thanks to the opposition groups it backs, whose fighters are also located in Idlib. Turkey hoped to achieve some compromises from Damascus, particularly as the assault on Idlib will mean an inevitable new influx of refugees across the border, adding to the severe burden on the Turkish economy.
At the end of the press conference following the Tehran summit, Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged his colleagues to include a cease-fire in the text of the communique, but that was rejected by both of his fellow leaders.
Though Russia, Iran and Turkey reaffirmed the idea that the Syrian conflict can only be settled politically, it seems such a solution might be buried under the ruins of Idlib.
Apparently the Russian tactics will be the same as in previous assaults on opposition strongholds: First to attack, then impose a temporary cease-fire and allow the opening of humanitarian corridors for any civilians willing to leave, followed by further assaults until all the fighters either die or surrender. However, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has asked the Russian leader to give more time to Turkey to separate terrorists from within the population of Idlib and mobilize civilians for evacuation. But his appeal will hardly be heard, as all previous attempts to extract terrorists from other masses have failed. Extremists are adept at using other fighting factions and civilians as a shield and they have no interest in surrendering, preferring to die in battle than be hanged or shot by firing squads for their atrocities.
It is true that Turkey is willing to eliminate terrorists in Idlib, whose presence is endangering the Free Syrian Army fighters it backs. Ankara would love to see extremists from groups such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham surrender to the FSA, but this has already proved to be impossible.
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was “working hard” to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib. Two days later, it was reported that a Turkish military convoy had arrived at Reyhanli, close to the country’s border with Syria’s Idlib governorate. The Turkish military presence on the border with Syria has significantly increased recently and it looks like Turkey is ready to halt any advance by the Syrian army and allied forces on Idlib. Ankara has already 12 military observation points within Idlib province, which were established in the framework of the earlier de-escalation agreement.
The international community is also opposing any military assault on Idlib, covering up their purely political interests and concerns with raised voices about preventing a humanitarian catastrophe — a favorite card played by the West when it needs to win a media war. But Western nations ignore such issues when they might work against them, such as in Raqqa and Mosul. US officials claim they have evidence that the Syrian government is preparing to use chemical weapons, while Russia has warned that it is the terrorists in Idlib who are preparing a chemical attack in order to blame Damascus and give Western powers a pretext to intervene. The West says Russia would be held responsible if a massacre occurs.
The trilateral meeting in Tehran had been perceived as a final chance to prevent a large-scale battle in Idlib, but everything has failed. Though the joint communique following the summit reaffirmed the adherence of the three countries to the idea that the Syrian conflict can only be settled politically, it seems the political solution might be buried under the ruins of Idlib.
We are standing on the brink of an enormous escalation that might result in a full-scale war involving not only regional, but global players too. One provocation might result in an explosion that could bring the conflict to a level of violence and bloodshed not seen before.
- Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme