East Briefing N°63 - Saving Idlib from Destruction

from International Crisis Group
Published on 03 Sep 2018 View Original

What’s new? The Syrian regime and its allies look on the verge of attacking the country’s north-western governorate of Idlib, the last remaining stronghold of the armed rebellion, saying they must root out the jihadist militants who are dug in there.

Why does it matter? The Idlib region is home to nearly three million people, mostly civilians, more than one million of them displaced from war zones elsewhere in Syria. These people would have nowhere to flee in the event of an all-out regime assault. The death toll could thus be massive.

What should be done? Turkey and European countries should tell Russia it will compromise its political objective in Syria – the regime’s full rehabilitation – with an assault on Idlib. Turkey, Russia and Iran should resume negotiations to find less dangerous means of neutralising the most hardline jihadists.

I. Overview

The Syrian regime and its allies seem poised to launch an offensive in the country’s north-western governorate of Idlib, citing as reason the contingents of jihadist militants present in this last major redoubt of Syria’s armed rebellion. But the area also is home to nearly three million people, mostly civilians. An all-out attack would likely have devastating human consequences and must be averted. Turkey and Europe must impress on Russia the political cost of such an offensive, and Turkey, Russia and Iran should return to the negotiating table to reach a compromise. This deal could entail ending rebel drone attacks on Russia’s Hmeimim air base, reopening key highways to regular commercial traffic and suspending a regime offensive in Idlib to give Turkey a further chance to find a solution to the province’s jihadist challenge. Western countries should make clear to Moscow that a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib will mean that they cannot work with Russia toward a political resolution or re-engage Damascus. They should further insist they will not rebuild Syria over the bodies of Idlib’s civilian population.

For almost a year, Idlib has been protected by a partial ceasefire under a May 2017 “de-escalation” agreement among Turkey, Iran and Russia. It is not clear whether the apparently imminent offensive, and the maximalist rhetoric accompanying it, suggest an all-out attack to retake the entire area from the rebels, or a bid to press Turkey into a compromise that would satisfy Russia’s bottom-line demands: intensified Turkish efforts to rid the area of jihadists, an end to drone attacks on Russia’s air base and regime control over Idlib’s key highways. Turkey, too, would like to see the end of jihadist dominance in Idlib. If Turkey tries to attack Idlib’s jihadists head on, however, it risks chaos on its border and jihadist reprisals in Turkish cities. Yet the threat of a regime offensive – even an initially limited one – would force Turkey’s hand. Turkey would need to prevent its second nightmare scenario: a massive new flow of refugees into Turkey, likely including jihadist militants.

Russia has reason to seek an accommodation with Turkey; ongoing talks between Moscow and Ankara suggest that both sides are pursuing such an option. They are doing so because an all-out regime offensive could not be accomplished without significant political cost to Moscow. The Syrian regime’s reconquest of Idlib would effectively mark its victory over the country’s rebellion, but Russia’s 2015 military intervention also had a political objective: Russia seeks to ensure not just the regime’s military victory in Syria but its full political restoration through international re-legitimation at war’s end, and its economic recovery through Western-supplied reconstruction funds. Turkey is integral to achieving those political ends, including as a co-sponsor of the talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana that originally yielded the Idlib de-escalation agreement. Turkish officials have warned that an attack on Idlib would gut the Astana process. Astana’s collapse or Ankara’s decision to downgrade political cooperation with Moscow would threaten Russia’s political project in Syria.

Likewise, a regime victory in Idlib that kills many civilians and displaces hundreds of thousands would shock the same European countries Russia is now courting to reopen diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime and invest in reconstruction. Russia has enabled brutal regime victories before, in Aleppo and elsewhere, and trusted that other countries would eventually reconcile themselves to reality. But an Idlib offensive would come as Russia is arguing that Syria’s war is winding down and involve humanitarian suffering on a scale likely unprecedented in the war – straining talks between Russia and the European Union (EU) regarding reconstruction aid to the breaking point.

There is no obvious solution for Idlib, given the large number of jihadist militants entrenched there and the unacceptably high cost of any attempt to remove them. But the answer is not for the regime and its allies to kill a large proportion of Idlib’s population, or for Russia to strong-arm Turkey into acquiescing. For Damascus and its allies, military victory is in sight in Idlib. But by backing an all-out offensive, Russia risks undermining its long-term political objectives in Syria. Better for Astana’s three guarantors to return to negotiations on an alternative with buy-in from all sides, and for Turkey and Western donors to make clear that a military victory by the regime in Idlib could put political victory for Russia out of reach.