Idlib crisis: threat of great power confrontation hangs heavy
As tensions rise, clashes between Russian and Turkish forces cannot be ruled out
Syrian children at a camp for displaced civilians fleeing from advancing Syrian government forces in Idlib province. Photograph: Amer Alhamwe/AFP/Getty Images
As the battle for Syria’s jihadi-dominated Idlib province looms, the UN is scrambling to avert a humanitarian disaster and calling for a negotiated solution. Prospects for Friday’s UN Security Council meeting and subsequent talks are poor.
Clashes between Russian and Turkish forces cannot be ruled out. Anticipating a rift at the weekend meeting between Syrian government allies Moscow and Tehran, and opponent Ankara, Russia massed a naval armada off the Syrian coast and has bombed and shelled targets in Idlib, warning Turkey it cannot preserve jihadi assets there. Turkey has reinforced military positions in and around the province.
A great power confrontation threatens. The US and its western allies seek to deny victory in the Syrian war to Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. Russian air action defied US president Donald Trump, who warned against “recklessly” attacking Idlib and said the US would respond to any Syrian army use of chemical weapons. The deployment of Russian ships and war planes is also intended to deter military action by Washington.
Damascus, Russia and Iran are determined to restore Syrian sovereignty in Idlib by rooting out al-Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, associated factions and the Turkish-sponsored Liberation Army, an alliance of mainly jihadi groupings. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Idlib as a “hornets’ nest of terrorists” that Syrian armed forces are “preparing to resolve”.
The government cannot allow Idlib to remain a jihadi or insurgent base. Their presence is a national security threat and perpetuates conflict. Fighters shell and raid Latakia province to the south and Aleppo province to the east, where they can cut the strategic highway between Damascus and Aleppo city, Syria’s commercial and industrial hub.
Syrian reconciliation minister Ali Haidar said military action was more likely than “reconciliations” – negotiations leading to the surrender, disarming and amnesty of insurgents. “Idlib is different from other regions [which have opted for surrender] because of the large numbers of fighters,” he said, without ruling out a deal to avert a humanitarian disaster.
This may be unavoidable. Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi said that “terrorist groups have mixed with the people” and are using them as human shields. About 2.9 million civilians are said to live in jihadi-held Idlib and adjacent areas. More than half are displaced from conflict zones.
Idlib hosts scores of mainly jihadi factions. Some sources estimate the number of fighters at 30,000, with 10,000 in Tahrir al-Sham; others argue the figure could reach 80,000-100,000. Tahrir al-Sham – dubbed a “terrorist” organisation by the security council – claims to have more than 37,000 fighters but has suffered defections to two new al-Qaeda factions. Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey’s Liberation Army have rejected a ceasefire and negotiated solution.
Tahrir al-Sham has set up gallows in towns and villages it controls to terrorise civilians calling for a peaceful settlement. The group also provokes Damascus by mounting attacks on Syrian troops deployed near Idlib, and Moscow by sending armed drones to strike its airbase in Latakia province, south of Idlib.
UN mediator Staffan de Mistura has called on all parties to reach a “soft solution” and urged those backing “terrorists” to halt funds and arms. He is to meet envoys from Russia, Iran and Turkey on September 11th and 12th and representatives from Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the US and UK on September 14th.
Complicating the situation, on Tuesday, after Israel bombed alleged Iranian sites near the cities of Hama and Baniyas, the Israeli military revealed it had struck 200 targets in Syria during the past 18 months. As Israeli war planes thundered over Beirut, hundreds of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon crossed the border into Syria on their way home.