Syria’s Idlib May Be Spared a Mass Slaughter, but for How Long? #SyriaWar
There are hopes that a feared mass slaughter in the Syrian province of Idlib could be averted, after a de-escalation plan was agreed to between the Assad regime’s ally Russia and Turkey.
The announcement of the deal this week provided some hope that President Bashar al-Assad’s planned massive, final push to retake the province could be staved off.
But one senior US Army War college expert, with long experience in the region and in advising the US Government, says it’s probably just a temporary reprieve.
“I hate to be pessimistic, but it’s hard not to be,” said Christopher Bolan, professor of National Security Affairs at the US Army War College, and a 30-year veteran in the region with the US army and as a onetime advisor to former vice presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney.
“Other times in Syria’s history of the civil war, where we’ve had local ceasefire agreements or other de-escalation zones, those have just not held.
“It’s hard to see how this one is going to hold, given that history.”
US intelligence reports indicate that despite international warnings, Mr Assad is preparing to again use chemical weapons on his own people, this time against a corralled population — many of them refugees who have already fled from fighting elsewhere in Syria and find themselves jammed against the border with Turkey in Idlib, with nowhere to flee.
The UN Secretary General warned in August that if the assault comes, it may set off a “humanitarian catastrophe” in a place where the regular population of about one and a half million people is estimated to have doubled over the course of the conflict, owing to a flood of displaced Syrians.
It could also mean that the US, in keeping with President Donald Trump’s anger at Mr Assad over the use of chemical weapons, will be compelled to rally an even bigger military response along with its allies than he has after past chemical attacks.
The Russia Turkey plan
The plan put together by Russia and Turkey proposes to demilitarise part of Idlib, and would require “radical” rebels to surrender weapons and leave the area by mid-October.
It appears to envisage that the demilitarised area would be precluded from a return to the control of Mr Assad.
The details are scant, and it remains unclear whether the disparate opposition forces and the population in general would agree.
While Damascus welcomed the announcement of the plan, it also reiterated that it would recover “every inch” of Syria.
“What I fear is President Assad has said his goal is to recapture all of Syria, and Idlib is one of the primary provinces that stands in his way in doing that,” Professor Bolan told PM.
“And I’m not sure that Russia, even though they can discourage him from that goal, is actually capable of withholding him from pursuing that goal that he sees of course as key to his survivability.”
Chemical attacks ahead?
Professor Bolan says US intelligence information is that Mr Assad will use chemical weapons in Idlib as part of a military push there, making it highly likely the US and other partners will launch broader military retaliation than they have in past cases of regime chemical attacks.
Rights monitors, journalists and intelligence from governments indicate Syrian forces have used chemical weapons on about 50 occasions during the conflict, in flagrant violation of international bans and against the appeals of the international community.
Recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Syria had been warned not to use chemical weapons again.
US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert also last month told reporters in Washington that the US “will respond to any verified chemical weapons use in Idlib or elsewhere in Syria… in a swift and appropriate manner.”
Professor Bolan says any new chemical attacks would indicate that past US and allied retaliation has not deterred Mr Assad, meaning they could be forced to ramp up any new retaliatory action.
“In the past we’ve strictly limited those attacks to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.
“They key question will be, if that doesn’t act as a sufficient deterrent, do we need to expand that target set, potentially, to include the Syrian forces themselves?
“If not President Bashar al-Assad — the command and control of his armed forces in the region?” Professor Bolan said.
Drifting to regime change?
While the United States may find itself compelled to ramp up its response should new chemical attacks eventuate in Idlib, this may not indicate any fundamental shift in US policy on Syria and the Assad regime.
Professor Bolan said other US pronouncements on Syria have shifted.
“Officially the US position is we’re not pursuing a regime change strategy,” he said.
“But President Trump has called the Assad regime a ‘criminal enterprise’ for employing chemical weapons before, so I can’t be certain that the US objective there won’t necessarily change under the threatened use of Syria’s chemical weapons.”
But does that mean the US might yet decide it wants Mr Assad gone, with all the complications that would present for Washington with Assad-ally Russia and the other major player that has aided the Syrian President, Iran?
“I’m not in the Government… but I do think — I mean that is the trend line, right?” Professor Bolan said.
He pointed out that until recently, the US Government was very clear that the objective in Syria was limited to the destruction of the Islamic State and terrorist forces..
Then came comments from a newly appointed State Department envoy, a retired US ambassador to both Baghdad and Ankara, Jim Jeffries.
“He actually said, look our objective now is not limited just to the destruction of ISIS, but it also includes the ousting of Iranian forces from the region,” Professor Bolan says.
“So you’re starting to see a bit of mission creep in terms of what US objectives are.”
Syria’s trillion-dollar rebuild
However Idlib plays out, at some point Syria must be rebuilt, at the mind-boggling estimate of a trillion dollars.
The US has cut back on funds allocated just for stabilisation in areas of Syria where it operates.
Russia is under sanctions and has no serious capacity to contribute, and the international donor community is war weary — struggling to support efforts in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq.
China is looked to by some as a potential source of funds for a Syria rebuild.
“If the goal is stabilisation in Syria, then someone’s going to have to step up to do this,” Professor Bolan said.
“But nobody really wants to be associated with the odorous regime of Assad, given the tremendous damage he’s inflicted in his own country, so that’s going to be a real tough dilemma.”