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"The Idlib tragedy is a challenge for Europe"

 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Who still cares about Syria? A few noble-minded no doubt, or those whose job it is to care in the chancelleries or the editorial offices, but not many more among political leaders. In this respect, the agony of the Idlib province speaks for itself. Newspapers report that since mid-December 2019, a combined offensive by the Damascus regime’s forces and the Russian Air Force has spurred the displacement of more than 600,000 people, mainly women and children, who had already fled from other parts of the country recaptured by the regime under similar conditions. In the Idlib province, as elsewhere, entire cities are being razed to the ground. Russian planes destroy dozens of hospitals or medical facilities, in violation of humanitarian law, but this situation is now considered as the "new normal".

Those best informed are aware that Turkey is determined to hermetically close its borders, meaning there is no escape to flee the last rebel stronghold still resisting Damascus’ grip. The region is held by a range of armed groups probably dominated by some 20,000 to 25,000 jihadists affiliated to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group or other organizations. A precarious ceasefire had suspended fighting for months following an agreement between Putin and Erdoğan. But while Turkey did set up military outposts, Russia noted that the former has not fulfilled its part of the contract: to fight and eliminate, with the help of non-jihadist rebels, the HTS extremists - who include a number of Russian-speaking people within their ranks.

An escalation between Ankara and Damascus appearing on the horizon

Russian planes destroy dozens of hospitals or medical facilities, in violation of humanitarian law, but this situation is now considered as the "new normal".

In this context, one cannot fathom what could stop Moscow from letting the Syrian regime win back Idlib, or rather from helping it in this endeavour, whatever the price for the civilian population. Mr Erdoğan – whose soldiers were killed in the venture – is sending reinforcements and threatening the Syrian regime with terrible wrath, probably leading to an escalation between Ankara and Damascus. Nonetheless, many observers believe that, at best, Turkey will obtain an arbitration from Russia to create a buffer zone along its border, allowing it there and further East to settle displaced populations.

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.

Such a strategy is of course very difficult to implement. Turkey did not succeed, if it really tried at all. In any case, this strategy remains infinitely preferable to the scorched earth strategy of the Syrian regime and its sponsors. At this point, Assad's forces control about a third of the Idlib province. It might be acceptable for Russia – in order to avoid a deterioration in its relations with Turkey – to let the situation freeze for a while.

The EU, in tandem with Washington, has the duty to step up its advocacy efforts to secure a ceasefire.

For the area that remains uncontrolled by the regime, the EU and the US could offer Russia and Turkey some kind of cooperation aimed at putting in place a counter-insurgency strategy that would this time spare civilians, in effect turning them and remaining moderate groups against the jihadists. The humanitarian community has legitimate reservations about strategies that combine aid to populations with military or anti-terrorist operations. Yet in the desperate case of Idlib, it is the last chance for dealing with the ongoing tragedy.

Such an option of course implies that the Europeans – and the Americans – are prepared to contribute with technical means, intelligence and strike capability, to this new anti-terrorist strategy, in partnership with Turkey and in consultation with Russia. At a time when there is so much talk of strengthening European defense, is this not a project that the French President could put forward at the Munich Security Conference?


First published on on Thursday 13 February.

Copyright : Delil souleiman / AFP

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