“They have created a kill box in Idlib, and no-one cares about that!
Unnamed diplomat, February 2020
27 February, 2020
Some 250 kilometres from the EU’s eastern border people are dying in large numbers. Under the pretext of destroying Salafist Jihadi extremists the Damascus regime and its Moscow overlord are seeking to crush one of the last major city redoubts of the patchwork of loosely-affiliated opposition forces.
The strategic significance of Idlib cannot be over-stated. A city some 30 km/20 miles south-west of the Syrian-Turkish border, prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 Idlib had a population of some 165,000 people comprised mainly of Sunni Muslims, together with a significant Christian minority. The population grew markedly during the civil war, particularly after Moscow’s September 2015 intervention pushed opposition forces ever further away from Damascus. A Russo-Syrian attack on Idlib was inevitable following the fall of Aleppo in late 2016.
The humanitarian situation is grave. According to the United Nations there are between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people caught up in the fighting, with the UN estimating that some 692,000 people have fled towns south of Idlib in recent weeks. The UN also estimates that some 390,000 people are seeking to enter Turkey, which already shelters some 4 million Syrian refugees.
The military offensive also threatens conflict between NATO member Turkey and Russia. During the night of 2-3 February Ankara sent a Turkish military convoy into Idlib. This led to a firefight between the Turkish and Syrian Armies that saw 5 Turks and at least 13 Syrians killed. President Erdogan of Turkey has warned his erstwhile partner, Russia’s President Putin, that if Moscow fails to control Damascus Ankara will act. In fact, the evidence suggests Russia is leading the offensive using its air power to blast a path forward for the Syrian Army on the ground. To suggest the situation is dangerous is a marked understatement, made even more dangerous by Russia’s blocking of any United Nations Security Council sanctioned ceasefire.
Moscow and Damascus stand on the verge of crushing the non-Salafist opposition in Syria. Such a victory would bring Russian forces into contact with the Turkish border, and also create a new potential flash-point with NATO. In the wake of the 2019 Russo-Syrian offensive in Northeast Syria there was also a marked increase in the presence of Daesh and other such groupings. There is no reason to believe a similar resurgence would not take place in Northwest Syria, irrespective of the relatively small number of US and Allied Special Forces still operating in the region.
Furthermore, there seems little or no relationship between what Western powers claim as their objective and the extent and scope of their collective effort in Syria. A decisive Russo-Syrian victory will make it far harder for the Global Coalition Against Daesh, certainly in Syria. Indeed, whilst the wider efforts of the Coalition to counter Daesh will continue, the loss of Syria would represent a major setback. Moreover, in spite of efforts to de-conflict US and Russian military operations there would be a greater chance of a renewed clash in Syria between Russian ‘mercenary’ forces of The Wagner Group, and possibly FSB and GRU forces, and US Special Forces as Damascus deems all non-regime forces as ‘extremists’. Kurdish forces and the Kurdish people would be trapped between Russian, Syrian and Turkish forces facing at best a very uncertain future and with a profound sense of having been betrayed by the US and its European partners.
The humanitarian situation would be even direr than it is today. Whilst an end to the offensive might in the short-term ease the immediate suffering of the population. Past experience suggests the Assad regime would seek to exact revenge on peoples and groups it deemed as disloyal. Efforts by the UN and the NGO community to afford people relief could well be blocked, with the regime seeking to expel large numbers and force them into Turkey.
At the geopolitical level a Russo-Syrian victory would mark the effective end of the Syrian civil war with a decisive victory for Moscow, and afford Russia a major strategic prize. Not only would the West (such as there is a ‘West’ in Syria) be humiliated, but Russia’s military air base at Latakia, some 55km from Idlib, will be secure, together with its naval base at Tartus. The two bases would enable Russian forces to exert strategic influence far out into the Mediterranean.
In that context President Trump’s January 2020 Middle Eastern Peace Plan looks like little more than an attempt to deflect criticism for the lack of US leadership in and over Syria. His call for NATO to do more in the Middle East looks little more than an effort to highlight Europe’s almost complete lack of influence over a conflict on its own strategic doorstep. The Russians would thus reveal the deep schism that exists between Americans and Europeans and not just over Syria, with possibly profound implications for Europe’s security and defence.
The implications for European cohesion are also profound. Whilst President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany have called for a Four Power meeting with Presidents Erdogan and Putin to be held on 5 March, the role and effectiveness of European in the Syrian fiasco has been lamentable. There is simply no unity of effort or purpose. Britain, one of the major European powers that signed the now defunct nuclear deal with Iran, is completely absent from the Franco-German demarche, although this has more to do with London than either Berlin or Paris. Throughout the war London has been obsessed with giving the political impression that it was doing far more than has been the case. This is reflective of a deep strategic malaise at the very highest levels of government in London and one of the many reasons for Europe’s failure in Syria. The EU? Too often European leaders talk up values with little idea how to defend them. It is a failure for which Europeans will pay a high price, particularly if France and Germany are only engaged in strategic face-saving.
With millions of refugees likely barred from returning home to Syria expect many more to seek sanctuary in Europe. If Daesh is indeed emboldened (and possibly instrumentalised by hostile regimes) Europeans will become even more vulnerable to acts of terrorism. Finally, with US and European policy towards the Middle East and North Africa in disarray partners across the region and beyond will no doubt make greater efforts to seek an accommodation with Moscow. Tehran will also be emboldened, making it more likely it will again miscalculate.
Courses of action
The loss of Idlib makes a wider Middle Eastern war even more likely than it was prior to the Russo-Syrian attack. It is probably too late to countenance sustained Western military pressure, even if that were an option, which it is not. The immediate focus must be on the alleviation of humanitarian suffering. Over the medium to longer term it is in the interests of both Americans and Europeans to work together to mitigate the strategic and political damage done by this defeat, or that is what it is, to their influence in the region, to NATO, and to European security. For that to happen politics on both sides of the Atlantic will have to become far more closely aligned with strategy.
For Europeans what is happening in Idlib is also symptomatic of a strategic withdrawal from world events. In the space of a century Europeans have moved from being colonial over-interference in the Middle East and North Africa, which proved disastrous for the people therein, to partial or pretend engagement in a region vital to Europe’s own security, and which could prove disastrous for Europe.