Syria’s morning after

The civil war’s approaching finale will intensify Turkish-Syrian tension, and consolidate Israel’s policy of neutrality.

A wall along the border between Turkey and Syria is pictured at the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
A wall along the border between Turkey and Syria is pictured at the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
It was one of archaeology’s major sensations.
A trove of clay tablets more than 4,000 years old unearthed in the 1970s linked the biblical Hebrews to the kingdom of Ebla, in today’s northwestern Syria, citing places like Sodom and Gomorrah, rituals like the release of the scapegoat, and names like Abraham, David and Saul.
Having stored the earliest mentions of biblical themes outside the Bible, the archive alarmed Syrian President Hafez Assad, who feared it might help justify Israel’s claim to its land, and in fact extend it to Syria.
With or without relation to Assad’s consequent harassment of Ebla’s researchers, scholarship has since rejected its link to the Hebrews, and now says that the Syrian kingdom was a superpower that overshadowed the monarchies of the Euphrates and the Nile.
Ebla has not been in the news since last century, but it now returns in earnest as the setting of the Syrian civil war’s grand
finale, very likely under Gomorrah-scale brimstone and fire. The neighboring powers, and also distant superpowers, will be deeply involved in the imbroglio, thus underscoring Syria’s role as other people’s chess piece, in an ironic contrast to ancient Ebla’s power and pride.
As for the Hebrews, whatever their ancient forebears’ role in this area, their modern offspring will see in this showdown and its aftermath vindication of their seven-year policy of neutrality toward the Syrian civil war.
HAVING PUSHED northwest the assorted rebel groups he faced since winter 2011, President Bashar Assad now has the rebels bottled in and around the city of Idlib, 17 kilometers northwest of historic Ebla, and 50 km southwest of Aleppo, the metropolis he leveled and retook in 2016.
Idlib’s 30,000 rebels have nowhere to flee, and also no reason to believe they can strike a deal that will spare their lives. A last-stand battle is therefore all but inevitable in the city whose prewar population of 165,000 was joined by an estimated 2 million refugees.
The UN fears 800,000 will now again try to flee Idlib, and thus cause a humanitarian catastrophe, according to Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. The refugees are expected to stampede on Turkey, which is expected to fend them off.
De Mistura’s proposal to go to Idlib and dissuade the Syrians, Iranians and Russians from waging their attack is for now falling on deaf ears.
The enclave, dominated by al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has been swamped by rebels evicted by Assad’s forces from multiple pockets elsewhere in Syria, where they had been heavily bombarded before being offered safe passage to Idlib, with their families, in turn for disarming.
Having thus consolidated his grip on greater Damascus and southern Syria, Assad now amassed outside Idlib large forces led by the predominantly Alawite Fourth Division.
With Russian jets bombing Idlib’s outskirts on September 4, the offensive has effectively begun, and will now unfold on three different plains: militarily, demographically, and politically.
Militarily, helped by Russian and Iranian special units, Assad will aim to annihilate the last of the armed insurgents. Since the rebels mix with the population, and considering the regime’s record of indiscriminate bombing, the prospect of massive civilian casualties is now a universal assumption.
Demographically, the assault will likely be designed to serve the ongoing Syrian-Iranian effort to push Sunnis from west to east, and Shi’ites from east to west.
This is what Assad was out to accomplish when he gassed in April last year the mostly Sunni town of Khan Sheikhoun, 45 km south of Idlib. This is also why Western intelligence agencies suspect the Idlib attack will include the use of chemical weapons.
With Assad’s Alawite minority of hardly 3 million concentrated along the coast and in the Nuesseirya Mountains to its east, the Shi’ites who can change Syria’s ethnic geography are waiting in Iraq.
Thousands have already been reportedly led by Iranian-backed militias to western Syria, helped by the newly passed Law No. 10, which let the government expropriate displaced Syrians’ properties unless they showed up physically to claim them, with their deeds, by last spring.
The Iranian role in this ethnic cleansing is but one detail in an international spectacle involving Turkey and Iran, Sunni and Shi’ite, Europe and America, Russia and NATO, half a dozen Arab governments and, for good measure, the UN, too.
THE CONFRONTATION’S high stakes were highlighted by a 12-vessel Russian fleet’s emergence opposite the Syrian coast in late August, while further west another Russian flotilla comprising 26 warships overflown by three dozen fighter jets and strategic bombers conducted a naval exercise on a scale the Kremlin had not held in the Mediterranean since the Cold War.
An American intervention – like last year’s barrage of 49 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air force base following the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack – will this time be far more risky. The heavily present Russian military might be tempted to intercept US missiles, thus causing a direct Russian-American military clash that did not happen even during the Cold War’s worst moments.
The two superpowers made their belligerent moods plain.
First, national Security Adviser John Bolton warned his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, that the US would respond “very strongly” should Assad use chemical weapons in Idlib. The warning was issued during a meeting between the two in Geneva on August 23.
Two days later the Russian Defense Ministry responded in kind, accusing the US of collaborating with the Islamist rebels, and warning that the rebels are preparing to stage a chemical attack that will seem as if waged by Assad.
President Donald Trump then joined the diplomatic cacophony, tweeting on September 4 that Assad “must not recklessly attack Idlib Province” and that “the Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy” in which “hundreds of thousands of people could be killed.”
As of this writing, there is no indication that the Syrians, Russians, or Iranians are considering heeding Trump’s concluding plea to them, “Don’t let that happen!”
The Russian Navy, regardless of the role it might play in case of American action, is ready to help Assad’s assault by firing long-range Kalibr missiles at the Idlib area, 65 km inland. The Russian air force, whose Syrian base in Khmeimim is a mere 85 km southwest of Idlib, will contribute decisively, in what will seal its game-changing interference since fall 2015.
The approaching military drama would not happen if not for its political masterminds, who lost no time announcing their presence, aims, and resolve.
Idlib’s “terrorists” must be cleaned out and the region should be placed back under the control of the Syrian people,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told his Syrian host, Foreign Minister Walid el-Mualem, on September 3, during what seemed like a sudden visit.
Though less colorful, Zarif’s pronouncement fits Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s depiction of Idlib as a “festering abscess” that must be “liquidated.”
The week before Zarif’s visit, Defense Minister Gen. Amir Khatami met Assad in Damascus. Formally, the visit was about a military cooperation agreement the two countries now signed. In practice, it was obviously about Iran’s role in the approaching attack, and its place in postwar Syria, where it wants big chunks of the reconstruction projects that the war-ravaged country begs.
Faced with this commotion, Syria’s Russian and Iranian allies decided to confer in Tehran with their gathering offensive’s most unpredictable protagonist, and Assad’s most dangerous enemy –Turkey.
The Turkish army entered the Idlib region last year, following its invasion of northern Syria in summer 2016. The Turkish invasion has two contexts – one sits well with Assad, the other does not.
The first context is the Kurds. The Syrian minority that prior to the war numbered roughly two million is seen by Turkish President Reçep Erdoğan as a strategic threat, since it might unite with Turkey’s own restless Kurds, and also form a bridge to the Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq.
The second context is the Sunni insurgency, which Erdoğan has backed while demanding Assad’s ouster, for “how can we embrace the future with the president of Syria who killed close to one million of its citizens?” as Erdoğan put it in a televised press conference in Tunisia last December.
Turkey’s situation as the Idlib offensive approaches is therefore dialectic. On the one hand, Damascus shares Ankara’s anti-Kurdish agenda. On the other hand, the offensive is expected to finish off the Syrian rebel forces whose victory Erdoğan has sought all along.
In between, the Syrian Kurds are backed by the US, meaning that beside the prospect of an American-Russian skirmish, friction might also ensue between NATO’s two largest armies.
In other words, the Idlib attack will likely leave a frustrated and humiliated Turkey parked in Assad’s backyard.
BURDENED by major economic crisis at home, Erdoğan cannot afford the appearance of defeat in Syria.
Moreover, Erdoğan needs to explain at home not only why his proxies were defeated, but also why the Turks ended up absorbing three million Syrian refugees, more than any other country.
Erdoğan will therefore find it difficult to order a retreat from northern Syria, and Turkey’s occupation will constitute a major problem for postwar Syria.
Erdoğan’s eagerness to undo the autonomy the Kurds have established in Syria will please Assad, but he will be less pleased to find that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states tacitly back non-Arab Turkey’s occupation of his Arab land. Assad’s alliance with Shi’ite Iran is from their viewpoint far worse.
Turkish-Syrian friction is nothing new, fueled by Syria’s claim to the Turkish region of Alexandretta, and then by Turkey’s damming of the upper Euphrates, and by Syria’s sheltering in the 1990s of Turkish-Kurd rebels.
There were days when Israel was automatically on Turkey’s side of this historic tension. Those days are gone. The Syrian civil war produced a new Israeli state of mind, and the war’s aftermath will bolster it.
The Arab civil wars produced an Israeli policy of strategic preemption and regional neutrality.
Preemption meant nipping in the bud anti-Israeli military buildups. Israel therefore struck Iranian-sponsored bunkers, factories, and convoys of strategic arms; it reportedly killed Hezbollah and Iranian commanders in January 2015 as they prepared to launch a front on Syria’s side of the Golan; and last May, IAF jets bombed Iranian radar, training installations and barracks in 50 locations in Syria.
However, all this was done without taking sides in the Syrian conflict itself, just like the field hospital Israel opened near the Syrian border offered treatment to any victim of the Syrian war.
Bearing in mind the First Lebanon War’s ill-fated Israeli interference in an Arab civil war, Israel now avoided the mistake Erdoğan has made when he chose a side only to become part of its defeat.
This is beside the fact that Erdoğan buried the alliance that once flourished between Israel and Turkey. Israel will therefore watch from afar as postwar Syria grapples with a frustrated, unpredictable, and well-armed Turkey.
Regardless of that, Israel will continue to resist Iran’s military buildup in postwar Syria.
Paradoxically, Israel’s quest will be a microcosm of Assad’s own effort to make postwar Syria resemble as much as possible prewar Syria, the dismembered country which its traumatized people can no longer recognize, because their leader has brought it to ruin.