A Massacre Waiting to Happen: For Syria's Idlib, Diplomacy May Come Too Late

The U.S. and Russia are trying to forestall the offensive by negotiating with militias. But Assad isn't waiting – his forces are advancing on Idlib, where some 2.5 million Syrians fearfully wait

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Displaced Syrian children push a boy with disability on a makeshift wheelchair at a camp for displaced people in the northern Idlib province, Syria, August 29, 2018.
Displaced Syrian children push a boy with disability on a makeshift wheelchair at a camp for displaced people in the northern Idlib province, Syria, August 29, 2018.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Some 2.5 million Syrians, including 1 million displaced people, are fearfully awaiting the Syrian army’s major offensive against the city of Idlib and its suburbs. The United Nations has warned that the attack could displace some 800,000 people.

America is trying to work with Russia to forestall the offensive by negotiating agreements with the various rebel militias controlling Idlib, but so far without success. Russia is also conducting independent negotiations with the militias’ leaders for the same purpose, together with its Turkish partner, but again without much success. 

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Idlib is considered the rebels’ last major bastion. They have migrated to it from throughout Syria during the eight years of civil war, in part because the cease-fire agreements the Syrian government signed with the rebels in southern Syria, Aleppo, Hama and other cities all allowed the rebel fighters to relocate to Idlib with their weapons. It has therefore become a fortified zone of which each militia controls a piece.

Some of the militias have agreed to negotiate with Russia, and some have even been invited to integrate into the Syrian army. But others have refused to engage in any talks. The Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida and is considered a terrorist organization by all the parties involved, is actually one of the militias willing to negotiate. 

Syrian rebel fighters prepare for an attack by the regime on Idlib province and the surrounding countryside, Kafr Zeta, Syria, August 30, 2018.Credit: AFP

But unless all the militias agree, a violent offensive against the city is probably inevitable. This would be the last major offensive of the war, after which the focus would shift to diplomacy.

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The schedule for the diplomatic negotiations doesn’t leave much time. In early September, Russian, Iranian and Turkish officials are slated to meet to prepare for a meeting with representatives of the rebels and the Syrian government. On September 14, German, French, British, Saudi, Jordanian, Egyptian and American officials will meet in Geneva under UN auspices to discuss Syria’s future constitution. 

It’s hard to see the latter meeting producing any practical results, since Russia, the Syrian government and the Syrian rebels will all be absent. Apparently, it is merely intended to demonstrate some kind of international involvement and present an alternative to Russia’s moves.

The key question is whether the Idlib offensive will precede these meetings or not. But Syrian President Bashar Assad isn’t waiting. His forces are advancing on Idlib, and this week’s visit to Damascus by Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami was meant in part to coordinate the military operation there.

Israel and the West were upset primarily by the public announcement that Iran and Syria had signed an agreement under which the former would rebuild the latter’s army. But according to Iran’s military attaché in Damascus, Abolqassem Alinejad, in the first stage, this will only entail clearing minefields and an offer to build weapons factories in Syria.

Members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province on August 20, 2018. Credit: George Ourfalian/AFP

Hatami is the first Iranian defense minister in 20 years who didn’t come from the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He was appointed by President Hassan Rohani due to the president’s bitter dispute with the Revolutionary Guards over control of the country’s economic resources. The organization controls more than half of the Iranian economy, and Rouhani believes this causes great economic damage. 

He therefore fired the previous defense minister, Hossein Dehghan, a Revolutionary Guards loyalist. Dehghan became “supreme leader” Ali Khamenei’s adviser on military production instead, and has even announced that he plans to run in the next presidential election in 2021 “to save the country.”

This doesn’t mean Hatami agrees with Rohani on everything. But unlike his predecessor, he does at least consult the president on military plans.

Hatami’s statement about rebuilding the Syrian army should be taken with skepticism mainly because of the high cost this would entail, estimated at tens of billions of dollars. Iran, which is experiencing a deep economic crisis, would have trouble bearing those costs alone, especially since Syria already owes Iran some $6 billion on the loans Iran has provided. Iran’s own military involvement in both Syria and Yemen is estimated to have cost it another $16 billion.

Fears that Iranian soldiers or pro-Iranian militias will merge with the Syrian army also seem dubious. Who would command these mixed units, in which some of the soldiers wouldn’t even speak Arabic? Would Syria’s high command agree to set up separate Iranian units that would take orders from Iranian commanders?

Nor can the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, which are funded and trained by Iran, be compared to those that might be established in Syria. In Iraq, the militiamen are Iraqi citizens. In Syria, they would be foreign soldiers. 

Moreover, Russia has proposed integrating any rebel militias that agree to be part of the Syrian army. And the rebels certainly wouldn’t agree to serve in the army alongside Iranian units.

Thus Hatami’s announcement seems to have been aimed mainly at expressing Iran’s resolve to stay in Syria and fight for the status of an influential power in postwar Syria. But on this front, Iran faces a tough battle against Russia on one hand and America and Israel on the other.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said recently that Russia offered to make Iranian forces redeploy if America removed its forces from Syria. Bolton also said that his Russian counterpart asked him to present a map of where America is willing to let Iranian forces stay. In other words, Iran wouldn’t leave Syria completely, but would be restricted to certain areas. 

But Bolton said he rejected this offer, and Washington continues to insist that all Iranian forces leave. 

In response, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova issued a blistering statement saying that all U.S. forces must leave Syria before Washington asks other forces to leave. She demanded to know why U.S. forces were deployed in Syria at all and who had given it permission to enter the country.

Russian officials also accused America of sheltering thousands of Islamic State fighters and other terrorists in the American-controlled region around the Tanf border crossing.

For now, Israel’s warnings that it will continue to take action against Iranian forces in Syria don’t seem to have impressed Russia. But Moscow’s willingness to barter an Iranian pullback for an American pullout shows that Iran can’t fully rely on Russia. Russia’s diplomatic dialogue with Washington indicates that it’s using Iran as a bargaining chip, and also making good use of Iran’s dependency on it as one of the only countries that refuses to comply with American sanctions on Iran.

Iran has also already lost its competition with Russian over Syria’s civilian economy. Granted, Iran signed a memorandum of understanding a year ago to build a cellular network in Syria and form a partnership in mine phosphates, but that memorandum remains on paper only. It hasn’t been implemented yet because Syria would prefer business partnerships with China and Russia to partnerships with Iran, and it is therefore using its massive bureaucracy to delay and even thwart the Iranian deals.

Russia, not Iran, won exclusive rights to repair and develop Syria’s oil fields, build refineries and train Syrian workers. It will also take the lead in Syria’s civilian reconstruction, which is valued at hundreds of billions of dollars. 

At commercial fairs in Syria over the last two years, Russian, Chinese and other Asian companies won the best deals, while Iranian companies had to make do with crumbs. Iranian businessmen thinking of doing business in Syria understand that if they want to obtain Syrian government contracts, they will have to share their businesses with the Revolutionary Guards. Thus for now, they prefer to stay out of the picture.

Unlike Iran, Russia can forge partnerships with Western and Asian companies that can make sure Syria’s oil gets marketed once full production resumes. Iran would not only have trouble forming business consortiums, it would also have trouble selling the oil as long as American sanctions on it remain in force. 

Thus Iran will apparently have to make do with close access to the Syrian government, a limited degree of influence over Assad’s policies and maintaining its logistical ties with Hezbollah via Syria.

But the international considerations and strategic games that are preoccupying both world powers and countries in the region are of little interest to Idlib’s fearful residents. Even before the military offensive on the city has begun, they’re living under a reign of terror by local militias, which are kidnapping, arresting and killing civilians suspected of “collaborating with the regime” or abetting the Islamic State. 

Idlib residents heard Assad’s promise “to liquidate terror in Idlib” and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s vow, at a meeting with his Saudi counterpart, to cleanse the “festering abscess” of Idlib. And they know the attacking troops and the bomber planes won’t be able to distinguish between terrorists and innocent civilians.

Turkey, which set up several outposts in Idlib to fulfill its responsibility for supervising implementation of the de-escalation agreement there, can’t provide local residents with protection. Nor is there any other international force that could prevent the expected slaughter. Thus for some of these residents, any diplomatic solution will come too late.

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