Civilian Tragedy in Idlib as Regional Players Continue to Fight it Out

Russian airstrikes targeting civilian sites in last Syria rebel holdout; ‘benign neglect’ of international community leaves ‘no safe place’.

By JUDITH SUDILOVSKY/THE MEDIA LINE
August 2, 2019 14:08
People walk past a damaged building in the city of Idlib on May 31, 2019.

People walk past a damaged building in the city of Idlib on May 31, 2019.. (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)

July has proven to be the deadliest month for the children of Idlib, with the number of deaths over the past four weeks of the Syrian and Russian aerial offensive exceeding the total number killed in all of 2018.

According to the non-profit humanitarian aid group Save the Children, at least 33 children have been killed just since June 24 – compared to 31 children killed during all of 2018 – as a result of the bombardment against the last rebel holdout in the northwestern Syrian province that began at the end of April.

A total of 90 children have been killed in the four-month assault, which has also resulted in 440,000 internally displaced people, Save the Children said. The UN places the total civilian death toll since the end of April at 400 people.

A spokesman for the Syria Civil Defense organization, better known as the White Helmets volunteer group who are known for their rescue of civilians, put the number of internally displaced people at 750,000.

“The situation since April 26 until today is horrible and [it is] getting more and more severe on civilians,” Ayman, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution from Russian and other Syrian groups, told The Media Line from Turkey. “[The civilians] are stuck in a big prison. [The Turkish border] is totally shut down… and they are surrounded by the Syria regime army and militias sponsored by Russia.”

Ayman described a situation involving a ground invasion and constant aerial bombardment with “no safe place” for civilians.

“If you can imagine millions of people put in a very small space with no access to safe places… even in [refugee] camps even across the Turkish borders everything is a [target] for bombardment,” he said. “This again is hell on earth.”

The province is home to some three million people, including internally displaced Syrians.

Idlib province, together with Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, where similar military operations took place in 2016 and 2018, respectively, was theoretically supposed to be part of four agreed upon de-escalation zones set up and guaranteed by Iran, Russia and Turkey in the Kazakh capital, Astana in 2017.

However, noted Josh Landis, University of Oklahoma professor and director of the Center of Middle East Studies, following an eight-year-long battle against an array of rebel groups ranging from ISIS Islamists to Sunni opposition forces, the Assad regime has retaken an estimated 70 percent of Syrian territory and is determined to take reunify the country.

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“Russia has consolidated a ‘row’ of states in the Middle East: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran – at least what they are trying to do and the USA is jockeying over power [there] with Russia and Iran in a continuation of the Cold War game,” Landis told The Media Line. “Russia sees the north of the Middle East as a part of its sphere of influence, so does Iran. There are more Shi’ite [Muslims] in the north.”

The Shia and Sunni are the two major denominations of Islam, which split over a centuries-old divide over who was the true successor of the Islamic prophet Muhammed. Today, conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and particularly the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy wars are playing out along Shia-Sunni lines.

Ironically, said Landis, American military intervention in Iraq to overthrow strongman Saddam Hussein changed the influence of power there and catapulted the Shi’ites into power.

In addition, he added, Turkey is seeking to create a security zone around its border with Syria and is searching for allies. But its relations with the Americans have soured after the Turkish S-400 missile deal with Moscow. The US is also allied with Kurdish forces in northern Syria, which Turkey considers an extension of the banned PKK. But both countries were initially supportive of the Sunni rebel groups battling Assad.

Turkey, which has already spent $35 billion some 3.5 million refugees within its borders, is also concerned with what could be millions more Syrian refugees crossing into its borders.

Meanwhile, Russia is committed to restoring Syria’s "territorial integrity," said Landis.

With a smattering of former anti-Russian Chechniyan fighters, considered terrorists by Moscow, coupled with some 3,000 fighters from China’s Muslim Uighur minority, Idlib province has morphed into a global battleground.

“Despite gargantuan efforts by the USA and Turkey… who thought they could come take Syria from Iran and Russia… and put in power someone pro-USA, it has failed," Landis asserted. "We see now the resulting destruction in Syria and one can blame it on Assad, but it takes two to tango."

Many of the families now trapped in Idlib province are associated with al-Qa'ida fighters as well as refugees from other rebel groups.

The EU is watching the region attentively as well, despite a shaky agreement it signed with Turkey in 2018 in which Brussels was to provide Ankara with funds to stem the flow of refugees into Europe in exchange for granting Turkish citizens visa-free travel to the continent.

Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former Turkish diplomat, noted that Turkey’s primary objective is to find a formula that will help the international community address the problem in Idlib while at the same time pre-empting any new wave of refugees toward the Turkish border. To this end, Ankara appears to remain committed to an agreement reached with Russia in October to demilitarize the province and pressure jihadists to leave the area.

That effort has been only partially successful, Ulgen said, precipitating the current military offensive.

“Turkey is under increased pressure, it certainly does not want to see a new wave of refugees. At same time there is an agreement with the international community that the Jihadists who found refuge in Idlib need to be eliminated, but Turkey fears this will lead to a humanitarian crisis,” Ulgen told The Media Line.

Therefore, he said, the military campaign within Syria’s sovereign borders will continue with the “benign neglect” of the world community.

According to Dr. Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., diplomatic channels with Moscow are Turkey’s only hope of stopping refugees from spilling over its borders.

“From the Turkish point of view the situation is bad and getting worse but it has no other options,” Aliriza told The Media Line. “Containing the situation is the first priority of the Turkish government. It no longer harbors any illusions that the situation can turn in favor of the opposition but hopes somehow to use its links with the Russians underlined by its purchase of the S-400 missiles despite US opposition. It is clearly not happening.”

Indeed, he said, there are limits to the Russian-Turkish rapprochement.

“The situation getting much worse in Idlib is one of those limits. Every day the Russians are bombing civilian sites,” Aliriza said. “In the meanwhile, Turkey will stay within NATO while cooperating with the country the alliance is endeavoring to protect itself against.”

Together with its northern Kurdish allies, the US currently dominates more than 50 percent of all of Syria’s energy reserves and about 50% of the country’s water sources and viable agricultural land, University of Oklahama’s Landis said.

“What the US couldn’t do in war it is hoping to do in economic power. It is hoping to bring Damascus to its knees through poverty like it is doing in Iran,” he said.

But as far as the Idlib crisis is concerned, said Carnegie Europe’s Aliriza, the US is “effectively irrelevant… except for occasional tweets from [US President Donald] Trump.”

Eventually Landis believes, the Americans will tire of the conflict and withdraw, just as it did in Afghanistan.

“What are our interests there? Who cares if Iran owns Syria? Israel cares but they can take care of themselves. We are about to turn Afghanistan back to the Taliban… If you can rationalize that the Taliban are not so bad, you can rationalize that Assad is not so bad,” said Landis.

In the interim, a lot more people will die, according to Ayman, who said the world is now suffering from “Syria fatigue.”

“They are just ignoring what is happening. They relate to Syria as a proxy war so it has become a toxic topic,” Ayman concluded. “There is absolute silence about what is happening and this is unleashing the Russians. It is a great power killing civilians with total silence.”


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