By Vincent Lyn
The United Nations warned on Friday February 21, 2020 that escalating fighting in northwest Syria could end in a “bloodbath” as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan phoned Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin to discuss the quickly deteriorating situation.
Idlib is the final stronghold of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government during a nine-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. Turkey, which backs some rebel groups in Idlib, has lost 16 military personnel this month in clashes with Syrian forces. It has bolstered its positions and called for Syrian forces to pull back.
Some 60 percent of the 900,000 people who have fled their homes are trapped in a shrinking space are children, the U.N.’s office for humanitarian coordination spokesman Jens Laerke told a Geneva news briefing. The “relentless violence” must stop before it degenerates into “what we fear may end in a bloodbath” for civilians, he said. “In the freezing winter, many people have resorted to burning their spare clothes, pieces of furniture or other materials,” said Laerke. “The front lines and relentless violence continues to move closer to these areas which are packed with displaced people, with bombardments increasingly affecting displacement sites and their vicinity. We call for an immediate ceasefire to prevent further suffering.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Friday the “man-made humanitarian nightmare” in Syria’s Idlib province must end now, but he did not offer any specific plan for curbing the bloodshed in the final rebel holdout. “For almost a year we have seen a series of Syrian government ground offensives supported by Russian airstrikes. This month there have been repeated deadly clashes between Turkish and Syrian government forces,” Guterres said.
“The message is clear: There is no military solution for the Syrian crisis. The only possible solution remains political.”
I guess outsiders can be forgiven for being tired of the Syrian conflict. (Though personally I believe if you don’t help your fellow human being then we are all complicit in one way or another). After all, the violence has lasted for an entire decade and the worst chapters — for outsiders, at least — have come and gone. Islamic State (ISIS) seized almost half the country, in addition to one-third of Iraq and launched a global network of terror in 2014. But the world has now caught its breath and the threat seems to have ended. Refugees, too, flooded Europe some years ago but the influx has been contained.
Also, expert warnings about a resurgence of violence or extremism did not materialize and the return of state control seems to be the steady trajectory of the conflict despite persistent problems. Still, the unraveling of the situation in the last area under rebel control merits renewed attention. Not only because the relentless campaign launch by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies is causing one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory — up to a million desperate people have been displaced, but also because the fallout, after the mass carnage, could shape events for a generation to come.
Idlib is distinct for two main reasons. One is related to the role it acquired during the Syrian conflict, as it became a “dumping ground” for hardline fighters elsewhere in the country who refused to surrender to the regime. It now has many of the most committed opponents not just fighters to the dictatorship in Damascus. Idlib has what it takes to sustain an underground insurgency against the regime, one that is likely to quickly spill over to pacified areas elsewhere in the country. In fact, Idlib could initiate a nationwide underground insurgency in ways that previous fights did not. It is well placed geographically and demographically. The area is adjacent to the heartlands regime in the coastal region and hosts the largest numbers of young individuals who bore arms during the conflict.
Also northwestern Syria has become increasingly dominated by jihadist forces smarter than ISIS in dealing with the communities in which they operate. They blended with the local communities and focused almost entirely on fighting the regime, rather than on seizing areas and “cleansing” them of those who might pose a future threat to them, as Isis did. This approach enabled these jihadists and their allies to build an infrastructure of local influence that could help them sustain a long-term insurgency, as they turn from governing to fighting.
Such violent forces are likely to inherit the legitimate cause of Syrians who rose against the dictatorship in Damascus to demand a dignified and better life. The grievances that pushed Syrians across the country to rise up have not gone away — they have sharpened. The regime’s killing and torture machine has destroyed countless families everywhere in Syria. Exhaustion, as previous conflicts such as the one in Iraq show, does not bring lasting peace. So jihadist forces will no doubt hold the flag of the anti-Assad cause longer and subsequently absorb the energy of those still committed to the cause.
The most significant objective achieved by Russia after its direct military intervention in 2015, which secured the regime, has been to pacify the rebel areas through de-escalation agreements brokered along with Turkey, once the most committed backer of the Syrian opposition. Russia divided the rebels by diverting the war effort to one area at a time, making it possible for the regime to recapture rebel areas, but the strategy did not resolve the underlying problems of the conflict and Idlib is where the diehard groups gather.
The shift to insurgency usually comes after the fight over territory is complete. So, once the rebels lose their last pocket in northwestern Syria, they are likely to launch an underground revolt and connect with existing and currently latent networks in eastern, central and southern Syria.
Such patterns have played out before. It took years for defeated insurgents in Iraq to regroup and rebuild and the most fanatical ISIS inherited the landscape and filled the void. Insurgency is not an afterthought for jihadists; Syrian jihadists have long discussed the strategy as a future scenario, but until now they have had to prioritize the fight at hand.
The Russian approach, of recapturing areas, also does not resolve a lingering problem for the thinly stretched regime in Damascus, namely the lack of the manpower to fully control and police vast areas. In many cases, the regime’s “return” to areas previously controlled by the rebels amounts to little more than planting the Syrian flag in the town. A shift in the fighting from conventional means to underground revolt could see many of these areas falling back into rebel hands.
On June 2, 2020 Russian air raids have targeted Syria’s last major rebel-held enclave in the country’s northwest for the first time since a March ceasefire came into effect, Syria’s Civil Defence and a war monitor said. Tensions flared between Russia and the United States as the Russian military reportedly seeks to expand its presence in U.S.-controlled northeastern Syria.
The latest flare-up follows the Russian military’s reported attempt to build a base near the Turkish and Iraqi borders last week. President Vladimir Putin ordered talks with Russia’s ally Syria on cementing Moscow’s presence with additional military facilities in the conflict-torn country.
U.S. and Russian forces squared off in two tense encounters in the same area on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Mideast news website Al-Monitor reported, citing local monitoring groups and news agencies.
Villagers reportedly protested against a Russian patrol Tuesday near the northeastern Syria border town of Al-Malikiyah (Derik) as U.S. convoys awaited them nearby. On Wednesday, a Russian patrol was said to have come toe-to-toe with an American convoy outside Derik, blocking civilian traffic for hours. AFP video showed U.S. and Russian military patrols parked on a road as local civilians protested the Russian presence. The latest standoffs follow a series of similar incidents reported in northeastern Syria earlier this year.
“This is not a sustainable situation,” tweets Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.
American officials have previously accused Russia of violating the terms of de-conflict in what they characterized as an attempt to challenge the U.S. presence there. Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian government, launched a military air campaign in Syria in 2015 to help Damascus recapture parts of the country from rebels. Moscow has long insisted that the U.S. military presence in Syria is illegal.
In short, outsiders should not judge the Syrian conflict solely on how the situation has played out in recent years as the regime and its international allies recaptured areas through vicious and relentless campaigns of terror. There is still one major chapter to come and one that could prove to be highly consequential.
“How many mothers need to hold their baby in their arms while bombs are falling everywhere? How many fathers need to reassure their children and make them laugh, while fire breaks out all around. There is one thing people in Idlib keep hoping for — to preserve human life. And their hopes are lowering by the minute, by the day.”
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts