The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Given the challenges they face, including an emerging disease pandemic and volatile markets, world governments may be tempted to put the seemingly endless war in Syria on the backburner for the moment. That would be a grave error. For in a small corner of northwestern Syria, a brutal endgame is unfolding that may put Russia and NATO-member Turkey into direct military conflict, bring on a humanitarian catastrophe, and destabilize all of Europe. The effects of what is happening today in Idlib are unlikely to be contained in Syria. They are likely to spill over its borders and bring violence and misery to the Middle East, Europe, and beyond.
How It Came to This
The disaster that is Idlib is the handiwork of Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime. For the past several years, Russian and Syrian attacks on rebel-held areas fit a pattern: indiscriminate air and artillery attacks and the denial of humanitarian aid. These attacks, which started in earnest in spring 2016, did not discriminate between moderate opposition groups—which had signed a Cessation of Hostilities document under United Nations auspices the previous December—and terrorist groups, which were excluded from it. They also did not discriminate between combatants and civilians.
Indeed, Russian and Syrian officials refer to all opposition to the Assad regime as “terrorists.” They also take a dim, cynical view of the protected status the Geneva Conventions offer to civilians, medical and religious sites, and wounded fighters (who legally become non-combatants once wounded). They are suspicious of the work of Western non-governmental organizations providing medical and humanitarian assistance in war zones. In summer 2016, when I was working on Syria in the U.S. delegation to the UN in Geneva, my Russian counterpart colorfully expressed this view. Every time Russian forces happened upon a hospital, he said, there was “some Dutch guy” there saying they couldn’t enter it because it was a protected site. But, my counterpart continued, they could see “dozens of young guys with beards” behind him, the implication being that Western aid workers were sheltering terrorists.
So Russia and Assad devised a new strategy to deal with opposition-held areas. Instead of fighting their way into these cities on the ground—which would allow for more discrimination between combatants and non-combatants but put their own forces at greater risk—they would bomb them indiscriminately and prevent the humanitarian assistance that they were entitled to under the Cessation of Hostilities agreement from reaching them. This “surrender or starve” strategy worked, at least for a time. Under relentless attack, deprived of food and other necessities, and aware that the attacks on them were also killing civilians, rebel forces had a strong incentive to seek a deal. Russia and the Assad regime were willing to grant that deal: safe passage for fighters out of besieged areas and transportation to Idlib. In this way, Idlib became a holding pen for a wide array of opposition groups, from the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army/National Front for Liberation, to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria), to foreign jihadist groups, some from as far away as China and the Russian North Caucasus.
By early 2019, only three areas of Syria remained outside government control. The first of these was Al-Tanf in the Syria-Jordan-Iraq border region, where an American military force was protecting a U.S.-backed opposition group, as well as the Rukban camp for internally displaced persons. The second was the area north and east of the Euphrates, which the United States and the Kurdish-Arab militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had liberated from ISIS control. The third was Idlib. The partial U.S. withdrawal from the area north and east of the Euphrates in late 2019 opened the way for a Turkish offensive against the SDF, and for the entry of Russian forces into part of the region vacated by the United States But the majority of northeastern Syria remains under SDF control. The U.S. garrison at Al-Tanf also remains and has deterred any movement of Russian and regime forces into that part of Syria. So Idlib, unprotected by U.S. forces, was the natural place for the next offensive by the Assad regime and its Russian ally.
But Idlib was, at least formally, protected by a De-Escalation Agreement signed in 2018. This agreement established a 15-25 kilometer demilitarized zone between government and rebel forces, obligated government forces to refrain from attacks on rebel-held territory, obligated “radical” forces such as HTS to leave rebel-held territory, and obligated “moderate” forces such as the Free Syrian Army/National Front for Liberation to pull back their heavy weapons. Turkey set up military observation posts on the rebel-held side of the demilitarized zone, and Russia and Iran set up posts on the government-held side. For Russia and the Assad regime, this de-escalation agreement, like previous ones elsewhere in Syria, was a tactical measure designed to quell fighting in one area of the country, so the Russian and Syrian militaries could concentrate their forces elsewhere. Pro-regime forces had attacked previous de-escalation zones in Homs, East Ghouta, Deraa, and Quneitra provinces as soon as the military situation allowed.
Why It’s So Dangerous
In one sense, the current attack on Idlib, which began in earnest in December 2019, fits the previous pattern. But it is different from previous attacks on rebel-held areas for two reasons. First, Idlib is protected by Turkey, a NATO member with formidable armed forces. Second, there is nowhere else in Syria for Russia and the Assad regime to send opposition fighters who surrender there. The make-up of the rebel forces in Idlib, in which jihadist and terrorist groups are well-represented, heightens the danger. This situation makes three outcomes—all of which are catastrophic—more likely.
The first is direct military conflict between Russia and Turkey. After an airstrike killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers on February 27, Turkey blamed the Assad regime and launched an overwhelming military response. Deploying over 7,000 ground forces, its high-tech F-16 fighters, and swarms of armed drones, Turkey has decimated the Syrian military in Idlib, destroying some 135 tanks, 77 other armored vehicles, and “neutralizing” up to 2,500 Syrian troops, according to the Turkish Defense Ministry. While these numbers might be inflated, footage from the attacks tweeted by the Defense Ministry leaves no doubt about their devastating effect on the Syrian armed forces.
Turkey’s response got Vladimir Putin’s attention and convinced him a pause was in Russia’s interest, if it hoped to avoid the complete destruction of the Syrian Army. At a March 5 meeting in Moscow, the Turkish and Russian presidents agreed to a ceasefire in Idlib. But this is unlikely to last. Russia and the Assad regime have routinely violated agreements in Syria as soon as the military situation allowed. This goes for the 2015 UN-brokered Cessation of Hostilities and de-escalation agreements negotiated in 2016 and 2018. This ceasefire is unlikely to be different. While Moscow and Ankara wish to avoid a direct clash in Syria, they back opposing sides in Idlib, and each uses unreliable proxy groups, some with fanatical visions and little concern for the geopolitical implications of pursuing them. These groups could drag their sponsors into a conflict each hopes to avoid. The specter of NATO-member Turkey in direct military conflict with nuclear-armed Russia is reason enough for world governments to pay attention to what is happening in Idlib.
The second possible catastrophe emanating from Idlib is a humanitarian one; indeed this catastrophe is already unfolding. Russian and Syrian attacks on the province have killed some 800 civilians, and nearly one million people have fled since the offensive began in December. The majority of these have fled toward Turkey, which is already burdened with over 3.5 million Syrian refugees. With the Turkish border closed, aid agencies have set up some 200 refugee camps in Idlib to shelter those fleeing the fighting, many of whom have already been displaced multiple times. At least 81% of the displaced are women and children, and the lack of adequate shelter in the newly-built camps has forced tens of thousands to sleep outside in sub-zero temperatures, resulting in a number of children freezing to death.
UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria Mark Cutts called it a “crisis on a monumental scale.” Acknowledging that war crimes have been committed by “all sides,” Cutts points out, “The majority of the civilian deaths and injuries in the Idlib area have been caused by air strikes and shelling carried out by Syrian government forces and their allies.” Cutts concluded, “This is not the time for people to be taking their eye off Syria.”
The situation in Idlib could also destabilize Europe, first by raising tensions with Turkey, and second by allowing dangerous extremists to make their way to Europe and beyond. As a recent article noted, “With anti-refugee sentiment growing at home, Turkey faced a choice: to stop the Syrian regime’s advance or facilitate the exit of those trapped in Idlib to the West.” Turkey’s threat to do the latter has been largely rhetorical: it is no longer preventing the exit of refugees from Turkey to the European Union, but has not actively facilitated it.
But even minimal Turkish support for unloading its refugee problem on Europe has been a challenge for the EU to handle. Faced with the prospect of waves of Syrian refugees coming from Turkey, Greece stepped up its border security, firing tear gas and—according to some reports—live bullets at refugees trying to cross it, killing one of them. In response, Turkey deployed some 1,000 police special forces along its side of the border to prevent Greece from pushing refugees back into Turkey.
If this small surge of refugees, numbering only a few thousand, has raised tensions between NATO-members Greece and Turkey, imagine the consequences if Turkey actively facilitated the exit of the 3.5 million refugees it currently hosts, and allowed the passage of the nearly one million more encamped along the Syrian-Turkish border. A surge of that magnitude would almost certainly lead to violence along Turkey’s borders with the EU. And, given that much of Idlib is controlled by HTS, a UN-designated terrorist organization, a mass exodus from the province would include a large number of terrorists, some of whom would use the chaos and confusion to enter EU countries.
What Can Be Done
The situation in Idlib requires a response by Western governments. The Syrian Civil War may appear to be an interminable and unmanageable problem with little direct effect on the security of Western countries. Turkey may be an unreliable ally prone to flirting with NATO’s main adversary Russia. And given the coronavirus fears now rampant among many Western publics, it may appear politically risky to pay too much attention to a small province in northwestern Syria.
Failure to do so now could invite catastrophe later. The designation of a safe zone in at least part of Idlib, protected by NATO military power, is a feasible response. At manageable cost and risk, it would protect civilians and Turkish-backed opposition groups, mitigate the chances of direct military conflict between Turkey and Russia, prevent clashes along Turkey’s borders with the EU, avoid the specter of uncontrolled refugee flows allowing terrorists to enter Europe, and begin to repair Turkey’s relationship with NATO.