The Syrian Army and its Russian and Iranian allies are gearing up for a major offensive into Idlib province. The province is one of the last major areas in Syria held by the remnants of the Syrian rebels and jihadist extremist groups. It is a symbolic end to the civil war, but also may present a dangerous and toxic mix of agendas that could lead to escalation in an already deadly conflict.
The US has warned the Syrian regime and Moscow that Washington will not stand idly by if Damascus uses chemical weapons, as it has in the past, during the Idlib battle. The warnings began on August 23 when National Security Adviser John Bolton told the Russians that the US would respond. Russia and the Syrian regime have responded that the Syrian rebels and Western-backed civil defense volunteers, known as White Helmets, are preparing a “false flag” or chemical attack on their own people to spur Western intervention.
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US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned of “dire consequences” over the Idlib offensive if chemical weapons are used. Russia’s responded with a TV report that a “staged provocation” was already being filmed. “It is to be delivered to newsrooms or TV channels, which are to broadcast it after its publication on social media,” the state-run RT network claimed.
This war of words represents a new layer in the Syrian conflict. Even before the battle has begun both sides have already laid out what will happen. The US has said it will carry out air strikes if chemical weapons are used. Russia appears to be saying that a staged attack has already happened and therefore the Western air strikes are a foregone conclusion. Both sides are trying to win the information war.
The battle for Idlib also risks creating a humanitarian disaster. There are millions of Syrians in Idlib province and many of them fear the Syrian Army’s advance. How they will respond to the bombing remains to be seen. Some of the Syrians in Idlib were already evacuated over the last year from other Syrian rebel strongholds such as Ghouta. They have been on the run from the Assad regime for years. They have chosen again and again not to live under the Assad regime, which makes them more likely to want to flee to Turkey. Turkey, however, already has three million Syrian refugees and doesn’t want to take in another two million. This means these people will be stuck between Turkey and the Syrian regime.
Turkey has observation points in Idlib province and it does not want to see some of its Syrian rebel allies defeated. However, it has labeled Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Syrian group that is linked to al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization. That comes after many years during which Turkey did not attack HTS and worked with other rebel groups whose ideologies often tended toward extremism.
Turkey is now at a crossroads. Its Syrian policy of working with various rebels and trying to defend its borders by moving into northern Syria now brings it face-to-face with the Syrian Army and a Russian airport. At a meeting in Tehran last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. They were supposed to come to some kind of an agreement over Idlib. But they couldn’t and it appears now that the battle will begin and could risk clashes with Turkey.
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Israel has no stake in the battle for Idlib. The Syrian regime is a murderous and implacable foe of Israel, and supporters of the Syrian regime in the West almost all tend to be radical-left or radical-right antisemites. Assad’s fans make up the cast of Israel-haters at any conference or publication. But Israel has sour relations with Ankara, which routinely calls Israel a terrorist state and condemns Israel in harsh and extreme language. This is particularly true since the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
Israel has opposed the use of chemical weapons and would support US air strikes to stop their use. Israel has also worked with Russia regarding strategic concerns in Syria. Israel’s primary concern at the end of the battle of Idlib is that Iran and its proxies must not benefit. Iran must leave Syria and not use Idlib as yet another excuse to extend its roots. Hezbollah must leave Syria and not use the battle to train more troops it will use to threaten Israel.
Beyond Idlib is the province of Afrin where innocent Kurds have suffered the tragedy of the Syrian conflict. After the coming battle the international community must care for Syrian civilians and especially for those people in places like Afrin who, through no fault of their own, have been victims of this brutal, multi-sided conflict.
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