What To Do about Idlib

What To Do about Idlib

Sadness and tragedy come in many forms. One form consists in knowing how to solve a problem in theory, but realizing at the same time that what that would take in practice is not available. That is the case now with the tragedy unfolding in Idlib. There is a way to turn the crisis into an opportunity, but it would take wise and bold leaderships simultaneously in Washington, Jerusalem, Riyadh, Ankara, and the capitals of Europe. And that is precisely what we lack.

What should be done? The U.S. government should privately propose, organize as necessary, and backstop as required a joint Israeli-Saudi intervention, coordinated with an on-going Turkish intervention, to save the million-plus refugees now facing imminent annihilation in Idlib Province, in Syria. (A good summary of the situation, and how it evolved, is https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/03/idlib-the-most-dangerous-place-on-earth/.)

Why? Just seven reasons:

  • To save the innocent lives of more than a million human beings, many of them children and many now refugees twice or three times over, caught in some of the more despicable war crimes atrocities since World War II.
  • To prevent the coronavirus from savaging Europe further should, as likely despite (or later on because of) Turkish efforts, some contagious refugees ultimately manage to make their way into the European Union.
  • To transform dramatically the ultimate prospects for an Israeli-Syrian Peace Treaty.
  • To catalyze the end of the Syrian Civil War and the end of the Alawi regime with it, and to thus undermine the Iranian position in the Levant; if necessary, too, in the course of implementation, to destroy Hizballah and aid the Lebanese nationalist revolution.
  • To advance normalization between Israel and the Sunni Arab world.
  • To set back Russian imperial recidivism in the region and beyond, and rescue the still-significant diplomatic and strategic position of the United States.
  • To begin a long but necessary process of reconciling U.S., EU, and Turkish interests.

There is no need for most readers to have these points fully explained. They are in the main self-evident. So I will comment on them only succinctly.

Reason 1: If Israelis, or Jews, or anyone really, needs to be persuaded why this is important, I’m afraid I cannot help them.  It is true, as George Shultz once said, that we cannot save every sparrow that falls from the nest. We cannot police the world. Even a superpower cannot be a 24/7/365 superhero. But there are times, en extremis, when the moral conscience of the world is at stake, when the very quality of our humanity is tested. This is one of those times. Failure to recognize and act upon that realization inevitably has deep and broad implications for human culture writ large.

Reason 2: It baffles me why no one, at least no one writing in English, seems to have made the connection between the refugee crisis and the coronavirus crisis. EU member-state leaderships should not be fecklessly squabbling among themselves, as usual, or berating the Turks, however much they deserve it. They should be swallowing their arrogance and climbing down from whatever is left of their precious moral high ground and getting pragmatic about what to do about all these people. This requires sincere and sustained coordination with the Turkish government—period and full stop.

Reason 3: Ultimately, the most stable peace Israel could ever hope to make with Syria must be with its majority population. That means the Sunni community in Syria, however divided, feckless, and disappointing it has been since independence in 1946. The Sunnis never ruled the country well in its modern infancy, and have not really ruled it at all since 1958, when the Sunni elite turned the country over to Gamal Abdel Nasser to form the short-lived United Arab Republic, lest the Syrian Communist Party seize the state. The point is that no peace between Israel and the minority Alawi regime was ever going to last, even had it been possible to seal a deal. Since Israel’s long-term security interests require a peace with Syria’s Sunni community, freeing that community from the clutches of the murderous Assad regime could jump-start that project, particularly if it has the support of the rest of the Sunni Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and other countries.

Reason 4: The minority Alawi regime is way past its sell-by date. President Obama was right that the regime had to go, but irresponsible to say it and then do less than nothing to make it happen. But that was then, and this is now. These murderers have got to go. The Turks were right all along, really, at least about one thing and despite all their errors and duplicity: The Alawi regime, with its Iranian allies, is the reason that the Islamic State came into being in the first place out of the detritus of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and we could and can never entirely get rid of Sunni extremism until we get rid of the Shi’a threat—and never mind how real it really is—that has evoked it.

Further: It is in everyone’s interest—Israel’s, Turkey’s, Saudi Arabia’s, America’s…—that Lebanon be freed from the clutches of Hizballah, especially now that a national movement for democratic reform has congealed in that country. This is an historic opportunity to fix the flaws inherent in Lebanon’s birth condition. That opportunity should be seized if Hizballah so much as dares to oppose the Israeli-Saudi intervention in Syria.

Reason 5: Normalization is happening anyway. It has been slowed some by the one-sided, made-for-politics-only Trump “deal of the century” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, because this has forced Saudi Arabia and its allies to disavow it. A joint operation against the Assad regime would vault normalization forward, aided by U.S. encouragement and selective incentives.

Reason 6: The Russians have played a weak hand skillfully in the Near East, aided in the main by the abdication and confusion of U.S. leadership. This is not the place go into detail about how U.S. interests in the region should be understood. Let’s just say that there still are some, we are stronger on balance than the Russians and so are quite capable of maintaining and advancing our interests, and the Russians know that. We can sink their entire navy in 48 hours, and they know that, too. If we stand up for our interests, they will not mess with us over such a marginal stake. We don’t need and should not want to humiliate them. We just need to back them off a bit.

Reason 7: The Turkish leadership—and let’s mention no names, because personalizing these kinds of relationships is a bad idea—has been a real pain lately. But so have we been to them. Dismissing the relationship as pointless after the Cold War, threatening to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from Incirlik, talking about tossing them out of NATO, and more—these are all foolish, shortsighted ideas that privilege pique over perspicacity. The current Turkish president will not be around forever. The common interests we have, however attenuated, remain important and worth preserving. Our interests in Syria are a good example of what we share.

The proposed intervention could also help a process of reexamining and repairing a whole set of relationships involving Turkey, not to exclude Israeli-Turkish and the Saudi-Turkish relationships. The latter meeting of minds could have benefits from Gulf Cooperation Council distempers all the way to Libya. U.S. policy could encourage and incentivize that new understanding.

Divvying up the Tasks

So how would this work? The Saudis would be responsible for the diplomatic and financial aspects of the intervention and aftermath. Israel would do the military heavy lifting, in coordination, facilitated by the United States, with Turkey, which is already engaged on the ground, easily slicing its way through Syrian forces as the Russians pretend not to notice.

The United States would warn off the Russians and, via the EU, the Iranians. Neither wants to go to war over Idlib, particularly Iran right now in the throes of a multifaceted domestic crisis—a war, by the way, it knows it would lose all the way to Qom. The U.S. military and relevant intelligence agencies would also provide battlefield management and coordination as necessary. No U.S. troops would be involved, save for perhaps a few special operations activities designed to safeguard particularly sensitive sites in Syria—namely, the chemical weapons facilities the Syrians never declared in the first place, deceptions concerning which at the time by John Kerry notwithstanding.

Israeli troops would not enter Syria on the ground except as absolutely necessary and temporarily. Its military power would be exercised mostly through the air. Just in case you were wondering, the IDF can slice through the Syrian order of battle as though it were a dish of umm ali.

Turkey will occupy Idlib Province after a bit of slicing of its own, and extend its sway to Aleppo. It will, thanks to a U.S.-brokered agreement, avoid engaging Kurdish military units, and the Kurds will avoid engaging the Turkish forces. No side-wars are needed right now, thanks very much. The European Union, along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, will finance temporary housing and medical care for the population, on the Syrian side of the border.

A joint Turkish-Arab League force, assembled via Saudi aegis, will occupy Damascus and other major Syrian cities. As soon as combat operations are complete, the Saudi and Hashemite kings—for historic reasons that I will not stop now to explain to the untutored—will together preside at a major ceremony marking the liberation and renewal of the Syrian state. No Americans will be present on the stage, nor any Europeans.

Anti-regime Syrian militias would be placed under the command of the Turkish-Arab League joint force, and disarmed forcibly if they resist orders to obey and stand down. 

A constitutional convention will be convened at the earliest possible time to reconstitute Syrian politics; meanwhile, the skein of Syrian sovereignty will not be broken. There will be no formal, quasi-legal occupation.

All foreign forces will exit Syria within nine months of an agreement on a new constitution and the holding of free and fair elections.

Negotiations for an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty will commence no later than one year after the taking of office of a new Syrian government. Full and formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia will commence no later than six months after the signing of an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty.

When Does the Use of Force Become Imperative?

No one has to tell me that using force brings unpredictable and sometimes rogue consequences. But I have no patience for those who bleat that force should only ever be used as a last resort. This is a great applause line in many circles, but it makes no sense. If we were able to conduct a blind test, in a kind of diplomatic-gaming exercise—no proper nouns identified but the situation detailed well enough—concerning European security dilemmas in, say, springtime 1938, I’m certain that the last resorters’ position on the matter would result in the secretly marked Neville Chamberlain argument overwhelming that of Winston Churchill in popularity by at least fifty to one.

The “last resorters” pretend that doing nothing carries no risk, and bears no moral valance whatsoever, which exemplifies moral illiteracy on stilts (apologies to Jeremy Bentham). The logic that sometimes a judicious use of modest force averts a later need to use immodest force in a circumstance of likely greater disadvantage seems somehow never to occur to them. Deploying that same logic to many medical circumstances, their advice would be to avoid operating until the patient is half a millimeter from death.  It’s a good thing doctors don’t think that way.

Besides which, if the current situation in Idlib does not qualify as posing a “last resort,” then what does such a situation look like?

So, my plan sounds beautiful? It will never happen at a time when the Oval Office lacks strategic clarity, and both Israeli and Saudi leaderships are something less than sagacious and stable. Alas, failures of imagination are as plentiful in recent Middle Eastern diplomatic thinking as dunes in the desert. And that is both sad and tragic.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.