The Irish Times view on the crisis in Idlib: prelude to a bloodbath

Turkey and Russia have shown that they regard the welfare of the three million civilians as of less concern than their own narrow strategic interests

A displaced child looks on at an underground shelter in the Taltouna village, 17 km northwest of the city of Idlib on Saturday. Photograph: Yahya Nemah/ EPA

A displaced child looks on at an underground shelter in the Taltouna village, 17 km northwest of the city of Idlib on Saturday. Photograph: Yahya Nemah/ EPA

 

The United Nations has warned that fighting in northwest Syria could “end in a bloodbath”, with Syrian troops backed by Russian airpower and Iranian militia engaged in an all-out assault on the last remaining stronghold of the opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The offensive in Idlib has forced nearly one million people from their homes – most of them women and children. With nowhere else to go, most of the displaced have sought sanctuary further north, near the closed Turkish border, where freezing conditions and limited supplies have produced a humanitarian emergency. Aid agencies say space for tents is scarce and vital infrastructure, including hospitals and warehouses full of aid, have been hit by regime air strikes. Some 800,000 people have run for their lives in the past 10 weeks alone – the biggest forced movement of people in such a short time since the conflict began nine years ago.

For Moscow, the overriding aim is to solidify Assad’s grip on power and secure its own foothold

Turkey and Russia, as chief protagonists, have the power to end the crisis but have so far shown that they regard the welfare of the three million civilians in Idlib as of less concern than their own narrow strategic interests. Moscow and Ankara back opposing sides in Syria’s conflict but have collaborated on the search for a political solution. Yet Assad’s attack on Idlib, where thousands of jihadi and other opposition forces based themselves after they were routed elsewhere, has upset the fragile cooperation between the two powers, who blame each other for breaches of a de-escalation agreement. Russia is in outright denial, insisting quite shamefully that there is no mass flight of civilians from Idlib.

Syrians load their belongings onto a truck parked next to a Turkish military vehicle in the village of Qaminas, about 6km southeast of Idlib city in northwestern Syria following weeks of battles in the rebel-held Idlib region. Photograph: Aref Tammawi/AFP
Syrians load belongings in recent days onto a truck parked next to a Turkish military vehicle in the village of Qaminas, about 6km southeast of Idlib city in northwestern Syria, following weeks of battles in the rebel-held region. File photograph: Aref Tammawi/AFP

For Moscow, the overriding aim is to solidify Assad’s grip on power and secure its own foothold, including a Mediterranean naval base, in the region. Turkey, which has backed Sunni militants fighting against Assad, seeks to prevent more refugees crossing the border – it already hosts 3.6 million Syrians – and to impose a buffer zone along Syria’s northern border so as to stop the Kurds from establishing a state-in-waiting there.

Europe must stand up, confront Turkey and Russia and defend the civilians of Idlib at their hour of greatest need

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, believe they can act with impunity because the United States, under Donald Trump, has made clear it has no intention of re-engaging on Syria. Erdogan is also convinced he has leverage over the European Union, as his broad hints that he could allow Syrian refugees move north towards Europe indicate.

But European powers also have leverage, given the powerful sanctions they can deploy (and from which Russia yearns to be released) and the fact that the EU will have to be involved in Syria’s reconstruction. With the US having walked off the pitch, Europe must stand up, confront Turkey and Russia and defend the civilians of Idlib at their hour of greatest need.

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