Analysis

Syria's Idlib: The Hot Potato the U.S., Russia and Turkey Are Fighting Over

Until foreign powers finish their arm-twisting competition, civilians will continue to be killed and displaced in droves

A man inspects the damages in the town of Khan Shaykhun in the southern countryside of Idlib, August 3, 2019.
AFP

UPDATE: As cease-fire collapses, Syria resumes fight against rebels in Idlib

As foreign powers battle over the future of Syria, violence has left hundreds dead and thousands uprooted. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 450 civilians have been killed since April and more than 450,000 have been uprooted from their homes or fled to Turkey. These numbers do not include the 75 people killed last week nor those killed as this column was written.

Because despite another ceasefire agreement, signed last week in the Kazakhstan capital of Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the firing has not stopped. The regime’s forces continued to bombard sites in Idlib, in which more than 50,000 armed militia members have gathered following previous ceasefire agreements, and sites in the Idlib district where some 3 million people live. Idlib and its large district are the target that is now stopping Syrian President Bashar Assad from retaking complete control of his country.

Pockets of resistance are still active in many districts in the country, and the Islamic State has not entirely halted its attacks.

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The declaration that the war against ISIS has ended and that it has been uprooted has created the misleading feeling that the organization has been wiped out and its activists have disappeared from Syria. Its territorial control has indeed been dismantled, but its fighters, foreigners and Syrians, are still operating in many districts. Now it is laying a diplomatic time bomb that is straining ties between European countries and the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump threatened last week that if the European countries do not agree to take in ISIS activists detained in camps in Syria, including 800 in the hands of the Kurdish forces, he will release these detainees and move them to Europe. One wonders how he will make good on this threat.

Idlib is also a sore point between Ankara and Washington and between Syria and Russia. Turkey has said that its “patience with the United States is running out,” and Syria used those same words to show its impatience with the conduct of Turkey, which is has been defined as an occupying power. About a year ago, an agreement was signed between Turkey and Russia by which Turkey would ensure that the militias in Idlib would give up their heavy weapons and in exchange, Syrian forces would not occupy the city. So far, Turkey has not met its obligation, despite heavy Russian pressure. In fact, Turkey is threatening to launch a broad campaign to take over Syrian territory in the area between eastern Syria and the Euphrates River to “cleanse” it from Kurdish militias, which Turkey considers a threat to its national security.

This is precisely what the United States, which sees itself as the protector of the Kurdish allies who fought alongside it against ISIS, is afraid of. The feverish talks held with the Turkish leadership over the past few days by James Jeffrey, the U.S. special emvoy to Syria, bore no real agreements. Turkey is demanding that a security zone be created 35 to 40 kilometers long and about 20 kilometers wide, for which it would be given sole responsibility. The United States has agreed to a much shorter area between five and 14 kilometers wide, under joint U.S.-Turkish responsibility.

These gaps have placed the United States on the horns of a major dilemma, as has Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. Will the United States force Turkey to give up its territorial aspirations in Syria, or will it fold, and make do with elastic agreements that will allow it to extract its forces from Syria, as Trump decided at the end of last year?

Russia is also impatiently waiting for this Turkish-American arm-wrestling match to finish, as it seeks to end the Idlib affair quickly to move toward a diplomatic solution and end the war.

Russia has its own dilemma. If Turkey decides to invade, Russia will have to stand by Syria and demand that Turkey withdraw from the areas it would occupy, not because Russia has an obligation to the Kurds, but to help Assad get rid of the foreign forces (except the Russian ones, of course). This demand could also serve the interests of the United States and Israel, who seek to oust Iran from Syrian territory. But that move that would formally require a nod from Assad, who “invited” the Iranians to his country.

However Russia’s support of Assad’s demand to remove its forces, now of all times, after Turkey has crossed the lines, faced off against the United States and purchased the S-400s, could be considered a confidence-breaking move that would make clear to Turkey the huge strategic mistake it made when it opted for an agreement with Russia over complying with American demands.

Turkey, for its part, might believe that it is meanwhile exempt from Russian pressure because it can embark on an operation to take control of the entire Kurdish area of Syria. But it has no guarantee that Russia would let it control parts of Syria for long, especially when Moscow wants the Kurds to take part in the diplomatic process as part of the total solution.

Until Russia, Turkey and the United States finish testing the boundaries of tension in the elastic belt that ties them to the Idlib area and the Kurdish strip, Syrian citizens will continue to be killed, wounded and uprooted from their homes with neither assistance or protection. Humanitarian organizations will continue to gather funding to help the refugees, and human rights group will publish their usual reports on the numbers of injured and argue over the precise figures, and the United Nations will call on the parties to maintain restraint.