The desperate humanitarian toll from the renewed Syrian government offensive in Idlib is mounting by the day. Meanwhile, it will take much more than tweets of condemnation from the EU and United States to stop an increasingly confident Bashar al-Assad, and his Russian and Iranian backers, from retaking the key province despite the costs.
As displayed in Aleppo, Ghouta and Deraa, Assad and his allies have shown that they will stop at nothing to win. They have brutally employed a broad arsenal, from chemical weapons, starvation, blockade, and barrel bombs to using scorched earth tactics.
All the while, Western powers have largely failed to adopt a consistent and united approach to the civil war, now in its 9th year, let alone taking firm steps to stop the fighting.
With Idlib firmly in Assad’s sights, now is the time for tough choices, and for the West to take bold and swift action. Sitting on the fence is an indirect thumb up to Damascus and Moscow to continue their deadly operations.
Either the Western powers move beyond mere words and take a firm stance to stop the Idlib offensive, which includes reports of alleged new chemical weapons use, or they strike an unprecedented deal with Russia that gives renewed political recognition to Assad and averts a new humanitarian catastrophe and certain destruction of the city.
The alternative of doing nothing means that Assad will one way or another take back Idlib, whatever the cost. That cost is likely the slaughter of thousands more people, millions more displaced, and large-scale devastation.
In that scenario, as Assad eventually reclaims Idlib and other opposition territory through force, what little Western bargaining position that remains regarding the future framework of Syria will evaporate.
Ominously for Idlib, Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the topic of a full-scale assault, stated in recent weeks: “I don’t rule it out, but right now we and our Syrian friends consider that to be inadvisable given this humanitarian element.”
There have been thousands dead in recent weeks, thousands more displaced, and dozens of hospitals and civilian infrastructure destroyed. Ironically, this is all with Moscow keeping the “humanitarian element” in mind. What will become of Idlib if Russia and Assad ignore the humanitarian picture?
According to James Jeffrey, the US envoy for Syria, the Trump administration has found “overwhelming international support for an immediate ceasefire in Idlib, and this international support is only growing.”
However, as the last several years have proved, the United Nations is effectively paralyzed on Syria and words and tweets count little in discouraging Assad and Putin.
In fact, Moscow quickly rejected a tweet from the US President Donald Trump demanding that Russia and Syria “stop bombing the hell out of Idlib” and “indiscriminately killing innocent civilians.”
In this crucial phase of the Syrian war, the importance of Idlib cannot be underestimated. It borders with Turkey and links the key highways to major cities under regime control, including Aleppo, Hama, and Latakia.
These roads open up vital new channels for the regime in terms of much-needed commerce and logistics.
It is, of course, also the last bastion of the opposition forces and resistance against Assad. The population of the province increased from 1.5 million to almost 4 million as it became the center for thousands of displaced civilians and rebels from formerly opposition-held areas.
The same people that fled the likes of Ghouta and Deraa under fierce blockade and bombardment to seek relative sanctuary in Idlib are now facing a new round of atrocities.
Idlib remains vital to Turkey, which has a number of observation posts along the de facto border with regime forces as part of the 2018 “demilitarization zones” agreement with Russia and Iran.
Ankara thought it had a good understanding with Moscow over the plight of Idlib, but this is unravelling fast as the regime and Russian bombardment has intensified.
The demilitarization agreement may seem like a shrewd peace deal on the surface and a way to stave off more bloodshed, but in reality, it was always a veil for Assad and his backers to delay, regroup, and plan their inevitable military adventure on the remaining opposition-held areas.
The hardline Islamist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has a significant foothold in Idlib, and Ankara was always going to struggle to persuade mainstreams rebels to give up heavy weaponry, let alone get the jihadists to leave the planned buffer zone.
In turn, the presence of HTS was always going to be a recurring pretext for Assad and Russia to wage new military adventures.
As the battle threatens to gather speed, so too does Turkey’s conundrum. To stave off the assault, it has tried to unite various rebel factions and bolstered their defenses. Nevertheless, the more that Turkey reinforces rebel ranks, the more that diplomatic relations with Moscow and chances for a peaceful resolution to the war disappear.
The assault on Idlib threatens to send millions more refugees to Turkey, but it will also put Turkish spheres of influences in Afrin and al-Bab at risk. Turkey could easily become more directly embroiled in a war that it can ill-afford with plenty of domestic headaches already to contend with.
At the end of the day, Turkey alone is powerless to prevent Assad and Moscow from making their move. Ankara may have to make difficult choices of its own to retain its spheres of influences, and ultimately its main quest of keeping the Syrian Kurds in check.
Only a united response from the West can stop the transfer of Idlib and the rest of opposition territories to Assad, and given the Western track record over the past several years, that response is unlikely to go beyond mere tweets of condemnation.
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