The Idlib Challenge

July 31, 2018

Ever since the beginning the dictum was “there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict”. Yet external parties involved in the war and their proxies knew all along that this was far from reflecting their true intentions. At the outset the West and their regional allies were determined to oust President Assad from power and gave the opposition every support. As time went by West’s resolve wore off as a result of the inability of the so-called “moderate opposition” to turn itself into a major player and the growing fear that regime change might end up with radical extremists in power. Russia’s intervention in Syria was a game changer which gave the Assad regime upper-hand on the battlefield. Since then the anti-Assad Western alliance has all but collapsed.

European countries have gradually come to accept the idea that Assad may remain in power beyond Syria’s political transition. Their principal worry is to stem migration. Last week, the Washington Post reported that hundreds of Europeans who joined the “caliphate” are now back home and incarcerated and the challenge now is to keep prisons from becoming recruitment centers for future terrorists (*).

Turkey has become Russia’s and Iran’s in the Astana process. Its relations with Gulf states, former allies in Syria, have taken a downturn with the exception of Qatar. And, Washington’s focus has shifted towards forming an anti-Iran coalition with Gulf countries and Israel.

On November 11, 2017, Presidents Putin and Trump met on the margins of the APEC conference in Vietnam. The joint-statement issued after the meeting again said that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that the ultimate political solution must be forged through the Geneva process pursuant to UNSCR 2254. The reality, however, is that Moscow and Iran seek the resolution of the Syrian conflict through the Astana process only to have it approved in Geneva.

In the absence of will and capacity on the part of regional countries to resolve their differences, US-Russia cooperation has always been the key to ending the Syrian conflict.  The major challenge on that path is reconciling the strategic interests of the two, narrowing differences where possible, mindful of the gaps that will inevitably remain. Moscow’s priority is to ensure regime’s survival in Syria and Washington’s is to push Iran back in a way that would also address Israel’s security concerns. The “deal” President Trump is apparently seeking with President Putin could be to strike a balance between the two. However, that is an uncertain path because Russia’s leverage on Tehran has its rather narrow limits.

After a string of military successes President Assad’s attention has now turned on Idlib, the largest remaining Syrian rebel-held enclave. According to a Sputnik News report of last week, “most of Idlib province is currently occupied by a disparate collection of militant groups. The region has been home to infighting between Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, the latter being another coalition of Salafist jihadists. Over the last three years, militants from Aleppo, East Ghouta, Daraa province and other regions have evacuated to the region under agreements with the Syrian government. With the liberation of broad areas of southern Syria this month, Idlib province has become one of the last anti-government strongholds in Syria. Speaking to the Russian media on Thursday, Bashar Assad said that Idlib was the “goal, but not the only goal” for the Syrian Army and its allies in its operations to restore control over the rest of the country.” And, Kirill Semenov’s article in Al Monitor carried the title “Russia-Turkey ties face ‘moment of truth’ over Syria’s Idlib”.

Idlib is a de-escalation area under an agreement brokered in Astana last year. Under that agreement, Turkish armed forces have set up military observation posts across the province which borders Turkey. Thus, an all-out attack on Idlib would not only put them in harm’s way but also trigger yet another mass exodus into Turkey which already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Thus, Ankara has been cautioning against such an assault. So, it would again be up to Moscow to orchestrate developments there because maintaining the status quo is not an option. Suffice to add that Moscow considers most of the opposition fighters in Idlib as terrorists.

Ankara has been struggling to walk a fine line between Washington and Moscow in Syria. Now, with relations with the US at their lowest point in decades and rising tensions between Washington and Tehran this has become a tougher regional line to walk. Beyond regime’s survival, Moscow’s twin objectives seem to be re-opening direct talks between Ankara and Damascus and further weakening of Turkey’s relations with the West.  Actually, Ankara is now closer to seeing President Assad not as public enemy number one but someone with whom it has no other choice than to cooperate. The talks between the PYD/YPG and Damascus are another reason for Ankara to move in that direction. In brief, Turkey is almost back where it was eight years ago with Mr. Assad, the difference being lack of mutual affection.  And, although Washington remains frustrated with Ankara, it simply does not wish see Turkey drifting further away from the West. Some in Turkey may see this as a position of strength but is not. It is sailing in unchartered waters with land still not in sight.

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(*) https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/world/europe-isis-prisons/?utm_term=.19faee8ae8ed

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