The Idlib Challenge (2)

August 27, 2018

Since the very beginning of the Syrian conflict there have been three stumbling blocks before a political settlement:

  • Breaking the deadlock over President Assad’s future;
  • Persuading the external/regional backers of Damascus and the opposition to give their support not only in words but also in deeds to a Syrian-owned political transition; and,
  • Securing a broad-based agreement on who is a “terrorist” and who is a “moderate”.

After the Russian intervention which fundamentally reversed the military picture, Syrian President’s future has become less of an issue. Even his archenemy Turkish government’s position has shifted. The other two still top the agenda, but in reverse order. Particularly in Idlib, separating the “terrorists” from the “moderate opposition” is now the number one challenge. As a matter of fact, with conflicting interests and murky relationships in Syria’s proxy war, separating the two has always been a big, very big problem.

On February 22, 2016, the US and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”.  Accordingly, Russia and the US were expected to delineate, with other members of the ISSG’s Ceasefire Task Force, the territory held by “Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council” which were excluded from the cessation of hostilities.

For some time it appeared that the cooperation particularly between Jabhat al- Nusra and groups professing to belong to the “moderate” camp was an issue between Washington and Moscow. However, following his meetings with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow on July 14-15, Secretary Kerry clarified the US position.  In responding to a question during his joint press conference with Mr. Lavrov he said:

 “…  if some critic is criticizing the United States or Russia for going after al-Nusra, which is a terrorist organization, because they’re good fighters against Assad, they have their priorities completely screwed up…”

(However, Russia has continued to draw attention to Western support to al-Nusra and later Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.)

Kerry-Lavrov dialogue on Syria waned towards the end of the Obama administration and Russia, Iran and Turkey launched the Astana process. On May 6, 2017 the three countries signed the “Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation areas in the Syrian Arab Republic”. The Memorandum established four such areas among them Idlib. As the Assad regime retook most of these areas, surrendering fighters and their families were sent to Idlib under arrangements orchestrated by Russia. Thus, with tens of thousands of fighters, Idlib has now become the last major stronghold of anti-regime groups.

Last Friday, this is what Foreign Minister Lavrov told journalists at his joint news conference with Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu in Moscow:

 “…There are several tens of thousands of militants from the so-called Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra group, who are trying to control this entire territory and hamper the efforts, in particular, undertaken by Turkey to separate healthy opposition from terrorist groups… But when the de-escalation zone was created in Idlib, no one suggested to use it to ensure that terrorists, primarily from Jabhat al-Nusra, could use civilians as a human shield. Moreover, they are not just sitting there. They use it to carry out raids and shell the positions of the Syrian army…”

And, Minister Çavuşoğlu reportedly said:

“A military solution there will cause catastrophe, not only for the Idlib region but for the future of Syria. It will cause catastrophe and the clashes which may last a long time. Separating the civilians from the combatants in Idlib is important for everyone, but a solution through force would lead to a new wave of refugees and a humanitarian catastrophe. A solution by force in Idlib would undermine the trust between Russia and Turkey as well as the trust of the cease-fire participants. It is necessary to work in the Astana format on the cease-fire, it is necessary to work on promoting the political process…”

Only two days before the Moscow meeting, in a probable warning to terrorist groups, a Russian Defense Ministry video said more than 63,000 Russian military personnel had “received combat experience” in Syria since September 2015. The video also said that the Russian air force had flown 39,000 sorties, destroying 121,466 terrorist targets, eliminating a total of 830 gang leaders, more than 86,000 militants, including 4,500 immigrants from the Russian Federation and the CIS countries.

To sum up, the situation in Idlib is problematic. On the third anniversary of its intervention in Syria, Russia would probably like to deal the final blow to jihadist groups, eliminate their members and move forward with the political process. President Assad would like to declare victory over the Islamic State and other similar groups so that he can turn to northeast Syria to address the PYD/YPG question preferably from a position of strength. But Turkey, with 12 observation post in Idlib manned by Turkish Armed Forces worries about their safety as well as the prospect of yet another refugee wave with the likelihood of thousands of militants entering the country. Thus it opposes a military solution to the Idlib challenge.

Though answers may not be readily available, the following questions might be relevant to understanding the Idlib conundrum:

  • Was sending all the “militants” to Idlib part of the plan?
  • Couldn’t they be relocated in a less complicated area?
  • Are Russia, Iran and the Assad regime determined to eliminate the militants or would they let them go?
  • Barring the use of chemical weapons would the first alternative delight or upset Washington?
  • What are the chances for the opposition to provoke a US intervention?
  • What would such an intervention accomplish?
  • If the “militants” were to leave Idlib, where would they go?
  • What if they head towards Afrin, moving even closer to the Turkish border?
  • Following the signing of the Astana Memorandum Russia had urged Turkey to set up its observation posts without delay. Does Moscow now see these posts as a complicating factor on the road to victory?
  • And above everything else, is there any hope of separating the “healthy opposition” from the “militants”?

Finally, with more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees and tens of thousands of militants right across the border, we Turks should ask ourselves “how on earth did we get here?”






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