Two new reasons not to avert your eyes from Syria

Why We Wrote This

The world appears tempted to turn away as fresh violence is unleashed in Syria. But at stake are not only long-standing humanitarian principles but also lessons for the international community.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
The Atma camp, located in Idlib province in Syria and seen here on March 1, 2020, houses Syrians who have been displaced within their own country.

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Never has it been more important to resist the impulse to cover our eyes about Syria.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are confronting a no-holds-barred offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Idlib region. And his forces, backed by Russian air power, have targeted civilian areas, schools, hospitals, and aid facilities.

The civilians are trapped. Huddling in makeshift dwellings in the cold, they’re being pushed toward a border that Turkey has sealed. But they are trapped in another way as well: by a tug of war over Syria’s future.

Russia, which supports Mr. Assad, and Turkey, which backs insurgents, are at odds. Turkey is pressing NATO and the European Union to side with it. But President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has alienated NATO by trying to play it off against Russia. Largely missing are the United States and Britain.

That absence has had two important ripple effects. The first cleared the way for Russian military involvement that rescued Mr. Assad. The second weakened any credible Western opposition to a wholesale violation of rules protecting noncombatants. A key question now is whether the U.S. and the Europeans seek to reengage.

It’s being described as the final chapter in Syria’s devastating civil war, but that’s by no means certain. And never, since the conflict began nine years ago, has it been more important to resist the impulse to simply cover our eyes.

The immediate reason is what’s happening on the ground. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are bearing the brunt of a no-holds-barred offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to subdue the last major pocket of rebel resistance, in the northwest region of Idlib. The onslaught began late last year. Mr. Assad’s forces are backed by Russian mercenaries, Iran and its Hezbollah militia allies, and, crucially, Russian air power. And they’ve been targeting not just insurgents, but civilian areas, schools, hospitals, and aid facilities.

The civilians are trapped. Many are refugees two or three times over, having fled fighting elsewhere in Syria, or been forced out of areas Mr. Assad’s regime reclaimed. Huddling in tents or other makeshift dwellings, with winter temperatures plunging below freezing after sunset, they’re being pushed toward a border that neighboring Turkey has sealed shut.

But the civilians are trapped in another way as well, which adds to the importance of our understanding how the conflict got to this stage, where it may be headed, and what lessons the international community might learn from the victims it has claimed and the depth of suffering it has caused. For even if civilians in Idlib survive the latest fighting, they know their longer-term fate hinges on an intensifying geopolitical tug of war over Syria’s future. 

The protagonists

The main protagonists are Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Their uneasy partnership of recent years – in pursuit of a mutually acceptable arrangement over a postwar Syria – is now under huge strain in Idlib. 

Turkey, which wants to retain a security zone across the border in northern Syria, has sent in an extra 7,000 troops to support Islamist rebel forces against the Russian-Syrian offensive. Last week, Turkish soldiers came under an artillery and air attack that left at least several dozen of them dead – the largest single loss for Turkish forces in the war.

While they’ve been careful not to blame Russia directly for the attacks – ahead of a planned Putin-Erdoğan meeting in Moscow later this week – the Turks have announced a new offensive against Mr. Assad’s forces. The apparent aim: a cease-fire, negotiated through Moscow, that would include a lasting sphere of influence for Turkey in northern Syria.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

But as if that’s not complicated enough, Turkey is also a key NATO state. Mr. Erdoğan is pressing both NATO and the European Union to back him in Syria. So far, there’s little sign of NATO support. He has seriously alienated the alliance by trying to play it off against the Russians, especially by his purchase of an advanced Russian anti-aircraft system over strong U.S. objections.

For the EU, Mr. Erdoğan’s bid for support is especially fraught. Turkey is hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, under a deal involving billions of dollars of EU funding for the effort. Yet since the attack on Turkish troops in Idlib, Erdoğan has begun sending thousands of people toward neighboring European countries – in effect threatening a repeat of the major 2015 refugee surge that led to a political crisis inside the EU.

The missing players

And that brings us to what Sherlock Holmes memorably called “the dog that didn’t bark.” Largely missing from the diplomatic debate over Syria are the two most historically influential players in the Western alliance: the United States and Britain. They essentially dealt themselves out in 2013, when the British Parliament and, days later, then-President Barack Obama retreated from even limited military action to enforce their “red line” against Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

Whether the reprisal strike would have provided a meaningful military deterrent is uncertain. But the political and diplomatic message was clear: Especially with the example of the American-led invasion of Iraq, on inaccurate allegations that Saddam Hussein possessed undisclosed stocks of unconventional weapons, there was little appetite for any significant Western military involvement.

That had two important ripple effects. The first was to clear the way for Russia’s military involvement, which ended up rescuing Mr. Assad’s beleaguered regime and turning the war in his favor. 

The second was to weaken the prospect of credible Western opposition not just to chemical weapons, but to a wholesale violation by Russian and Syrian forces of decades-old rules governing the protection of noncombatants in conflict zones. The use of barrel bombs against residential areas. The shelling or bombing of schools and hospitals. The deliberate targeting of aid workers.

A key question now is whether the intensified fighting and mounting humanitarian crisis in Idlib will prompt the U.S. and European states to reengage in efforts to end the fighting and influence the future shape of Syria.

Where Turkey is concerned, the EU would seem to have little leverage, given its overriding concern to prevent a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis. The U.S., however, does have some potential sway as the senior partner in NATO, especially since Mr. Erdoğan has been trying to persuade Washington to give him Patriot anti-missile defense weapons.

Russia, by contrast, does have potential interest in improving its ties with the EU, badly frayed since its seizure and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Yet Mr. Putin seems intent on crowning his military involvement in Syria with a decisive victory for the Assad regime, with the added geopolitical bonus of excluding the long-dominant outside power in the Mideast, the U.S., from any meaningful say.

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