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For the past 18 months, as resurgent Russia- and Iran-backed regime forces swept across Syria, defeated and disarmed rebels in stronghold after stronghold were allowed to flee to northwestern Idlib province. They took their families and many of their anti-Assad sympathizers, and Idlib’s population swelled from 1.5 million to 3 million. Now a final military reckoning seems imminent for Syria’s seven-year civil war, with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad poised to attack Idlib. The Russian and Syrian air forces have already begun to bomb. On Friday, at United Nations headquarters in New York, and in a Turkey-Iran-Russia summit in Tehran, warnings of a looming massacre were sounded. But it may be too late for diplomacy, which has routinely failed to prevent atrocities throughout the war. “The dangers are profound that any battle for Idlib could be, would be a horrific and bloody battle,” warned UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura. “Either we are trying to find a political way to end this war and move to a postwar political scenario, or we will see this war reach new levels of horrors.”
The possibility that Syria's Idlib province would provide the setting for a tragic coda to the humanitarian catastrophe of the country’s seven-year civil war seemed enhanced Friday after a last-ditch summit meeting in Tehran of the main outside powers.
Even as Turkey, long a bitter foe of President Bashar al-Assad, urged a cease-fire in the northwestern Syrian province and warned of a massacre, Russia and Iran, Mr. Assad’s two main backers, pressed for government forces to begin their assault on the last refuge of rebel forces in the country.
Fresh Russian and Syrian airstrikes on Idlib were reported Friday morning. The widely anticipated offensive has drawn international concern.
At United Nations headquarters in New York, the Security Council met to discuss Idlib Friday at the request of the United States. UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura said there were “all the ingredients for a perfect storm,” Reuters reported.
“The dangers are profound that any battle for Idlib could be, would be, a horrific and bloody battle,” Mr. de Mistura said. “Either we are trying to find a political way to end this war and move to a postwar political scenario, or we will see this war reach new levels of horrors,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
Idlib’s fall to the Assad regime would effectively signal the end of a civil war that has already killed nearly half a million people, devastated the country, and forced half its population to flee their homes.
The humanitarian impact has been staggering. Millions have fled to neighboring countries and hundreds of thousands to Europe and beyond, feeding an epic refugee crisis that has strained humanitarian agencies to the breaking point.
How Idlib became a target
Over the past 18 months, backed by the manpower and firepower of Russia and Iran, the regime has had a string of battlefield successes, seizing the northern city of Aleppo, Deir ez Zour in the east, the Eastern Ghouta region east of Damascus, and most recently, Deraa and Quneitra provinces in the south.
In each battle, the regime offered rebels the option of surrendering their heavy weapons and relocating to Idlib province, where Turkish troops man observation posts as part of a now-collapsed de-escalation zone deal. The influx of defeated fighters and their families to the Idlib dumping ground saw the local population nearly double from 1.5 million to almost 3 million.
The dilemma facing the rebels and Sunni jihadist militants is that there are few places left to flee to should the Assad regime attack.
While Russia has condemned Idlib as a “nest of terrorists” that needs to be cleansed and brought back under central government control, Turkey has been calling for “terrorists” – a reference mainly to the Al Qaeda-linked Harakat Tahrir ash-Shams (HTS) – to be separated from civilians, in order to avoid an all-out onslaught.
“The [Syrian-Russian-Iranian] plan was clear from the start. These [rebel] groups would go there and then the regime would attack to capture it,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters this week. “How many of them will come to Turkey? Maybe 2 million [civilians]? Maybe more. Where will these terrorists go? They might come to Turkey or go back to their own countries. Foreign terrorist fighters can also go to other countries, to Europe or even beyond.”
Turkish media estimate that 60,000 Sunni jihadists are in Idlib, some 15,000 of them non-Arab foreign fighters. They remain “the biggest number of [Islamic State] and Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Syria,” wrote columnist Murat Yetkın in the Hürriyet Daily News on Wednesday.
"Russia’s message is clear,” argues Mr. Yetkın. "President Vladimir Putin does not want to lose time letting terrorist elements in Idlib embed with the civilian population, spread violence elsewhere, and use civilians as human shelters against possible attacks, while also not caring much about the possible collateral damage.”
No good options for Turkey
The stance of Turkey, which mans 12 observation posts on the edges of the Idlib enclave, is critical to determining its fate, analysts say.
“At one extreme, Turkey can choose to defend Idlib militarily, directly and/or through its proxies,” says Faysal Itani, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “If they do so, the regime cannot take the area at an acceptable cost, and Idlib becomes a de-facto Turkish zone.”
At the other extreme, Mr. Itani says, Turkey could abandon its observation posts in Idlib, effectively ceding the region to the Syrian government, though he says some rebels would likely withdraw to other Turkish-held territory, while the jihadists “may well choose to stand and fight.”
So much was at stake Friday afternoon when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gathered in Tehran.
Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, warned that the three leaders, despite handshakes and smiles, would “neither have the same vision for Syria nor be on the same page about the impending battle of Idlib.”
Mr. Erdoğan has long viewed Assad as illegitimate, wrote Ms. Aydıntaşbaş, in an ECFR analysis published Thursday, so “despite a begrudging acceptance of the regime’s wartime gains over the past two years, Ankara is in no mood to facilitate Assad’s victory in Idlib.”
None of Turkey’s options look good, adds Aydıntaşbaş, as it faces both a humanitarian “catastrophe” and a result that could “forever alter the dynamics of the Syrian war – in favor of the regime.”
Itani says he had trouble imagining what a cease-fire would look like.
“Russian contacts and persons close to the [Syrian] regime tell me that the difficulty of taking Idlib is exaggerated. They only real disincentive is a military conflict with Turkey, but even that may not be enough.”
Should US expand warning?
The United States, meanwhile, has remained on the sidelines of the impending assault on Idlib, although the White House has warned that the US and its allies would respond “swiftly and vigorously” if the regime uses chemical weapons.
The US has some 2,000 special forces troops deployed mainly in eastern Syria alongside the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and is primarily focused on ensuring the defeat of the ruthless Islamic State group and the full withdrawal of all Iranian and Iranian-led forces from Syria.
“I am very sure that we have very, very good grounds to be making these warnings,” Jim Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s newly appointed adviser on Syria, told reporters Thursday. “There is lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared.”
In April last year, the US struck a Syrian air base with cruise missiles in response to a chemical attack three days earlier, attributed to the Assad regime, on Khan Shaykhun. At least 74 people died.
“If the regime uses CW [chemical weapons] – which it has throughout the war – then the US will likely strike Assad regime targets,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
However, some analysts maintain that Washington’s warnings to Assad over the use of chemical weapons against civilians should extend to conventional arms as well.
“My fear is that past will be prologue with the Trump administration,” says Frederic C. Hof, diplomat in residence at Bard College in New York and State Department special adviser on Syria during the Obama administration. “By issuing a very public warning to Assad to avoid chemical warfare, the administration signals – intentionally or not – that mass civilian homicide by more conventional means will likely draw no US response.”
Mr. Hof says the only way to counter the “thoroughly unintended consequences” of such public messaging would be to warn Russia privately that “Assad’s business as usual – state terror – could draw a kinetic American response irrespective of the murder weapons.”
“I am not aware of such a message being passed,” he adds.