Sep 6th 2018
WHEN the Syrian army crushed the rebel enclave of eastern Aleppo in 2016, thousands of civilians and fighters were evacuated to Idlib province. When the Syrians bombarded eastern Ghouta, thousands more were bused there. Now the Syrians are massing to take Idlib itself. But this time there may be nowhere in Syria for civilians to flee to.
In a country that has suffered many horrors, not least the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, the UN is warning of “the most horrific battle of the seven-year Syria war”. About 3m people live in Idlib, the last big rebel pocket, roughly half of them displaced from other parts of Syria. Idlib has thus absorbed the most irreconcilable anti-regime rebels, among them jihadists linked to al-Qaeda, who know they face a fight to the death. So there is every reason to fear that the Syrian army will act even more savagely in Idlib than elsewhere.
The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey were due to hold talks in Tehran about the fate of Idlib on September 7th, after The Economist went to press. But the omens are not good. Syria says military action is more likely than a diplomatic solution. Russia this week bombed rebel positions in Idlib.
The looming assault is an indictment of the world’s countless failures in Syria. Perhaps the worst is that no outside power is either willing or able to stop the carnage.
The Making of a Tragedy
About half a million people have died in Syria since 2011; some 12m have fled their homes. This tragedy has many causes: the brutality of Bashar al-Assad, whose crushing of peaceful protests led to civil war; the cynicism of Russia and Iran in lending him military support; and the timidity of the West, which demanded his removal but was unwilling to bring it about. Unlike Barack Obama, President Donald Trump has at least taken limited military action in response to Mr Assad’s use of poison gas. A new book on Mr Trump recounts that last year he advocated assassinating Mr Assad—a claim he denies—but the idea was set aside by his defence secretary, Jim Mattis. By then a major Western intervention would have been too late, and too risky. Besides, Mr Trump sees even less reason to get entangled in Syria than Mr Obama did, beyond fighting Islamic State in the east of the country.
Apart from the moral obligation to end the suffering of Syrians and relieve the world’s worst refugee crisis, the West still has security interests in Syria. Refugees fleeing Idlib may destabilise neighbouring countries; if they move on to Europe, as they did in 2015, anti-immigrant populists will be strengthened from Sweden to Italy. Hardened jihadists are likely to join the stream of civilians, creating a direct security threat. And there is a danger that Turkey will be drawn into the fight. It has set up a dozen military outposts between regime and rebel lines to support a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib—the last of four such havens to survive. But Russia and Syria say that Turkey has failed to halt attacks by extremists.
Western countries, having refused to intervene in the war’s early stages when they had a chance to halt the carnage, can now hope only to mitigate the horror. America is right to warn Mr Assad that he will face retribution if he uses chemical weapons. Beyond that, the West should press Russia and Syria to open humanitarian corridors to let civilians flee into government-controlled territories, or into a Turkish-controlled buffer zone. It can also monitor the conduct of the regime and its allies to collect evidence of war crimes; guilty commanders, including Russian ones, could then be subjected to sanctions.
The West should also warn President Vladimir Putin and Mr Assad that a military victory in Idlib, if secured by wanton means, will come at a political cost. Russia will be denied legitimacy for the political accord it seeks to foster to end the war on its terms; and Mr Assad will not get the reconstruction money he needs to rebuild cities he has turned to rubble. Both should be reminded that, without a deal granting a bit more dignity and a share of power to dispossessed Sunni Arabs, the majority of Syria’s population, violent extremism will fester.
Such Western diplomatic action would be a palliative at best. It might push the actors to seek partial deals. But nobody should doubt the fundamental fact about Syria’s agony: Mr Assad has won. He is determined to re-conquer as much as he can of the country that he nearly lost. Mr Putin is probably right to reckon that the world will come to terms with the fall of Idlib, just as it acquiesced in the fall of Aleppo. The real questions are how long it takes, how many lives will be wasted and how much hatred it sows.