For Europeans, it is late, very late, to take an initiative on Idlib. Yet, there are several reasons why they should do so. This remote mountainous province of Syria is actually at our doorstep. It borders Turkey, EU’s immediate neighbor. This drama is negating the values on which Europe was built. Public opinion, although silent, is more sensitive to this than one might think. Moreover, Idlib presents the obvious risk of a chain of events leading to new influxes of refugees on our continent. There is every reason to believe that an outcome from military force and coercion alone, as desired by Damascus, Moscow and Tehran, far from resolving the jihadist problem, will create the conditions for terrorism to take root. But what is to be done?
Dissension emerging between Russia and Turkey
It may be the right time to take advantage of emerging rifts between Russia and Turkey, the latter being a member of NATO. The EU, in tandem with Washington, has the duty to step up its advocacy efforts to secure a ceasefire. To make their appeal credible, Europeans should prepare a major humanitarian aid operation, that ought to be coupled with an offer to fight jihadist groups.
There is a particularly striking feature in the case of the Idlib province. I am familiar with the town of Maarat al-Numan, which has just fallen into the hands of the regime and of which there is not a single stone left standing today. Its inhabitants had certainly rebelled against Assad but had also driven the jihadists out. This was also the case in many other localities in this region. In other words, by bombing civilians and making them flee, they are being pushed back onto terrorists’ side, whereas a smart counter-insurgency strategy could have precisely been to rely both on the civilian population and moderate rebel groups to isolate the jihadists, as a first step before reducing them.