Playing with fire in Idlib
5 Mar 2020|

The twists and turns of the Syrian conflict over the past eight years are already legendary, but the latest lurch into chaos has been described by the normally measured UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, as ‘one of the most alarming moments across the [confict’s] duration’. Perhaps, however, the most surprising aspect of the current flare-up is why it didn’t happen sooner.

As part of the ‘reconciliation’ deals reached with the Syrian regime, through Russian facilitation, rebels who had held out in Aleppo, Homs and southern Syria agreed to accept consignment to Idlib province in the country’s northwest corner. There, the accumulation of largely Islamist forces mixed in with and largely began to dominate more secular elements. Under a ‘memorandum on stabilisation’ signed at Sochi in Russia in September 2018, Turkey assumed the role of keeping order through a system of 12 ‘observation posts’ encircling the province.

The rules the Turkish ‘observers’ were meant to be preserving were never clear; the means to enforce the ceasefire were even less so, beyond enhancing an existing ‘Joint Iranian–Russian–Turkish Coordination Centre’. The Sochi agreement was freely interpreted by Turkey as giving it the right to provide a protective screen for the armed opponents of the Syrian regime: a role ill-fitted with Russia’s interest in aiding the restoration of government control in the area.

As the ceasefire steadily unravelled, Turkey felt sufficiently emboldened not only to protect the rebel elements from action by regime forces but also to deploy its own armed forces in support of operations to counter the forces of the Syrian government. Attempts by Russia to smooth over the tensions, all the while deploying its own air force to back the Syrian army, added further to the imbroglio. High-level discussions between Turkish and Russian leaders simply prolonged the muddle.

Meanwhile Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan embarked on another of the lurches of policy which have become the hallmark of his administration. Turkish forces became active participants with the rebels, scaling up the rebels’ anti-tank artillery and deploying Turkish heavy weaponry and main-force units in anti-Syrian operations.

At that point Russia seems to have accepted that the Sochi game plan was unworkable and decided it was time to show who really was going to call the shots in restoring government control to Syria. In a spectacular show of force on 27 February, Russian (or possibly Russian and Syrian) aircraft were sent in to attack a military battalion arriving in convoy from Turkey. Massive bombing resulted in the deaths of more than 30 Turkish soldiers.

It’s tempting to see the attack on a Turkish convoy as a blunt gesture by Russian President Vladimir Putin to inform Erdogan that his forces went too far in deploying sizeable fighting units rather than observers and in conducting operations the previous week that had resulted in Russian casualties. The message was, ‘Back off.’

Turkey responded by ignoring Russia’s warning and openly boasting of its massive build-up across the frontier meant to reverse the regime’s recent recovery of territory around Saraqeb and in southern Idlib province. Turkey has also played its humanitarian card, inviting many of the pool of Syrian refugees in Turkey to test the EU’s barriers against a further wave of refugees.

In the face of a new onslaught which has seen civilians fleeing from one part of Idlib province to another, the international community is struggling to raise funds to alleviate a new peak of suffering. The UN relief program’s chief has understandably asked why the Security Council is ‘unable to stop the carnage amongst a civilian population trapped in a war zone’. Not only are Security Council members looking away, but heavy donor fatigue and anaemic whispers about ‘peace processes’ barely register in the outside world.

In effect, rightful outrage from the international community at the conflict has for some time been a factor delaying a conclusion. For Western countries, sanctions against the Syrian regime remain the moral salve applied whenever a new atrocity emerges. Moral outrage alone, however, was never likely to hasten an end to the conflict; now it is more likely to prolong it. After almost nine years, Syria’s rulers and their backers have weathered every storm and are unlikely to bend to another puff of wind. Moreover, those who run a country cut off from normal economic links simply end up profiting from its isolation by diverting informal trade and financial channels to their own advantage—expanding opportunities for corruption that partly motivated the conflict in the first place.

Some external Arab players seem anxious to get the trade and investment flowing again, but the US’s massive power to reinforce sanctions against Syria brings ever more petty restrictions. The aim of ensuring other countries don’t step out of line is bolstered by secondary restrictive mechanisms through US financial channels which reduce Syria’s capacity even to contemplate externally funded programs of rebuilding. Average Syrians must simply see this as the last strand of hope being snatched from them.

Hopefully this policy will soon run its course, as it does nothing to salvage at least some of the assets that Syria has long provided the Middle East. If this multiethnic and multi-confessional state can survive as a viable entity, divisive forces that have begun to shift like tectonic plates across the region might be averted.

What can be salvaged from this pitiless conflict? The real antidote to Hayat al-Tahrir al-Sham and other al-Qaeda offshoots in Idlib is a Syria that returns to its secular traditions and provides a state for all its citizens—a rare commodity these days in the Middle East. Allowing the war to grind on because outsiders don’t feel 100% of their objectives have been achieved will enable endemic conflict to perpetuate divisions the rebels have exploited. The longer an outcome is delayed, the less there will be of Syria worth reviving.

A policy of letting Syria perish throws away an important key to allowing the Middle East a viable future. Syrians have shown extraordinary resilience in the face of a savage conflict. Their capacity to regenerate the economy through agriculture and industrial development is potentially unlimited. While the world wrings its hands over who will fund Syria’s rebuilding, most Syrians probably suspect that they will have to, and in some areas a few are quietly getting on with it where they can. Prospects of a ‘rebuilding’ funded by outsiders has been presented as a lure. But the lure has almost no value. The course of the war has shown that the sympathies of outsiders have never been good for much and that supporting an unwinnable struggle was the ultimate disservice Westerners could offer.

‘In Syria, you can no longer distinguish between right and wrong’, one Syrian woman told the New York Times last week. ‘They say the regime is bad and the rebels are good. Sometimes they say the regime is good and the rebels are bad. I can’t tell anymore. They’ve both ruined my life.’