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Idlib offensive shows how not to fight terrorism in Syria

By Arnab Neil Sengupta 9/9/2018
The risks involved in carrying out military operations amidst Idlib's estimated 2.9 million people, including a million children, are neither unknown nor disputed. AFP file photo of Idlib
The risks involved in carrying out military operations amidst Idlib's estimated 2.9 million people, including a million children, are neither unknown nor disputed. AFP file photo of Idlib
In the build-up to Friday's trilateral summit in Tehran, the UN envoy for Syria had pleaded with the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey to go for a "soft solution" in the matter of flushing out rebels from Idlib. This was, after all, no gathering of Nobel Peace Prize aspirants.

In the event, the "solution" that emerged from the meeting in the Iranian capital was stark disagreement among the participants, hardly the stuff to deter the Syrians and Russians from going ahead with their planned military assault on Syria's last major stronghold of anti-government fighters.


The West and its regional partners now have a moral duty to help the war-weary yet freedom-loving people of Idlib, rather than just wring their hands in despair over the prospect of neighbourhoods being bombarded from the air and subjected to poison-gas attacks on the ground in the name of "fighting terrorism".


Syrians should not have been abandoned by humanity for the "crime" of demanding political rights, dignity and economic opportunity way back in 2011. They should not be abandoned again seven years later, on the verge of what the new US envoy for Syria calls a "reckless escalation" that could result in a humanitarian disaster.


The risks involved in carrying out military operations amidst Idlib's estimated 2.9 million people, including a million children, are neither unknown nor disputed.


Even so, the appeals of world leaders seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Moscow, Damascus and Tehran judging by the wave of aerial attacks launched soon after the close of the trilateral summit.


There is no point debating whether President Bashar al-Assad would have acted in the best interests of Syrians had he been invited to the Tehran summit.


For, he is a president who has outsourced his diplomatic and military responsibilities to his Russian and Iranian counterparts, confident that they prize the survival of his regime more than the lives of all his opponents and their families collectively.


But what about the conscience of Russia's Vladimir Putin?


At the outset of the Syrian civil war, he could have used Moscow's clout in Damascus to push Assad out and find a friendly replacement who was slightly more acceptable to the Syrian population, the opposition and the international community.


Instead, Putin opted to stand by Assad at all costs, having seen in the authoritarian Syrian state the hallmarks of a kindred regime.


These days, Russia's strongman has pinned his prestige to the fate of his Syrian counterpart, allowing no daylight between the two governments' positions. If there was an iota of doubt about the degree of convergence, it was dispelled by Putin's rejection of Turkey's Idlib ceasefire proposal.


In contrast to Putin's performance, Iran's silver-tongued President Hassan Rouhani saw the Tehran meeting as a welcome respite from the harsh media glare that has accompanied the economic turbulence buffeting the Islamic republic for months now.


It must have been quite a struggle nonetheless for the poster boy of Iran's moderates to get his mind off his domestic worries and focus on the ceasefire proposal before predictably falling into line and siding with Putin.


If Rouhani secretly harbours misgivings about his country's costly and destructive involvement in Syria's civil war, it is of mere academic importance given that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his inner circle hold sway over Iran's foreign and defence policies.


As for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Tehran summit presented an opportunity to forestall an assault that would adversely affect the Turkish military presence in Idlib, weaken his hand in future negotiations within the Astana framework, and trigger a huge influx of refugees along Turkey's southern border with Syria.


Erdogan's opposition to the plan for an Idlib offensive has been carefully couched in humanitarian terms, even though many of his past actions, notably the military assault he ordered in March on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin adjoining Idlib, bear testament to the selective nature of his concern for civilians.


That being said, if the day of reckoning in Idlib somehow gets indefinitely postponed and "a grave humanitarian mistake" (as President Donald Trump put it) is averted due to the dissonant voices at the conclusion of the Tehran summit, it would be churlish to deny Erdogan a modicum of credit.


To sum up, Assad, having tasted victory in a string of battles with rebels, is raring for a fight in Idlib in order to "take control of [Syria's] entire national territory" (as Putin describes it) and turn the clock back to a time before the popular protests against his authoritarian rule erupted.


Not only has Assad got Idlib in his sights, he is equally keen to oust the Syrian Kurds who, jointly with their local Arab partners, control between 25 and 30 percent of Syrian territory in the northeast with the help of the US-led international coalition that was assembled to fight ISIS.


The joint force is being alternately wooed and intimidated by the Assad regime, which is banking on Trump's misguided insular impulses for a withdrawal of the 2,000-strong American force that would leave the battle-scarred area's Kurds slowly twisting in the wind.


In a portent perhaps of things to come, Syrian army troops stationed in Qamishli, in the de-facto autonomous region of Rojava, clashed with Kurdish forces over the weekend, resulting in tragic loss of life.


Against this complicated backdrop, the best hope is that ideological differences and conflicts of interests will keep Russia, Iran and Turkey in perennial tension, preventing a complete carve-up of Syria by foreign leaders in pursuit of geopolitical glory and personal vindication.


But since even the best hope is not a strategy, the West and its Arab partners should keep highlighting the humanitarian obligations of all parties to the conflict; set up channels of communication with any side that evinces a genuine interest in de-escalation; and reinvigorate their ties with moderate actors who can help stabilise and eventually rebuild Syria.


At the Tehran summit, Rouhani said "fighting terrorism in Idlib was an unavoidable part of the mission to restore peace and stability to Syria". What he omitted to mention is that a headlong military operation is not only the wrong way to accomplish such a mission, it can touch off a fresh cycle of violence and deepen sectarian distrust - regionwide.

Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


Dracul | 9/9/2018
Let's for once be honest and stop bringing in "human rights" or mentioning "civil casualties" as if it was a factor with these governments. They will of course use it for propaganda purposes when it suites them, like the case with Erdogan, attack civilians in Afrin, later "cry" for civilians in Idlib, or level to the ground Kurdish towns and villages in Turkey, and criticize Israel on Gaza. That goes for everyone, the West is no better.
Dutchman | 9/9/2018
In the Cold war the Soviet Union had exactly 5 allies in and around the Middle East: Libia, Syria, Iraq, South-Yemen and Afghanistan. In those countries the SU did exactly what Russia is doing now in Syria: support a brutal minority regime with thousands of T-tanks and Migs to surpress the people. Even after the Russian mass murdering machine is gone, it will take decades to restore peace and stability in those countries.
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What You Say

Pakistani | 2/16/2019 3:28:42 AM
Turkey is a terrorist state , has been killing innocent Kurds for ages ....
parasitePKK | 2/17/2019 3:54:11 AM
As long as the PKK is there Turkey has the right to defend themselves. PKK is a parasite against the Kurds.
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josfe | 2/14/2019 4:59:43 AM
And this man is a graduate with masters ? A college kid would be more objektive and wouldnt let his own opinion shine through.
David | 2/17/2019 1:36:54 AM
Solid analysis and proposal!
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guest2002 | 2/15/2019 8:20:41 PM
The attack was on armed forces . Since when that is called terrorism??? Mollas ruling Iran have terrified Iranians for 40 years now. They kill...
Erbilguy | 2/17/2019 1:17:06 AM
@guest2002 So Isis beheading peshmergas was not terrorism?
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