To prevent Syria's biggest crisis yet, the West must intervene now

The US and its partners must take proactive measures to curb the bloodbath before a full-on assault begins.

A man holds a child after an airstrike in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 7, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/BASSAM KHABIEH)
A man holds a child after an airstrike in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 7, 2018.
More than seven years into Syria’s civil war, the conflict’s bullets, bombs, shelling and poison gas have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and displaced millions of others. The country’s largest humanitarian crisis, however, may still be ahead of us.
The battle for Idlib – the last rebel bastion – looms menacingly on the horizon, a fight that could kill tens of thousands more civilians and spark a destabilizing a refugee crisis of unimaginable proportions.
Until now, the West has shied away from a prominent role in the conflict, bemoaning the carnage but wary of being sucked in beyond fighting ISIS. But with what is likely to be the war’s most brutal battle approaching, looking away is no longer an option: There are steps the United States and its partners must take now to head off the massacre before it begins.
Idlib sits atop Syria’s northwest corner, hugging the Turkish border to the north and flanked by historic Aleppo to the east. Once a rural backwater overshadowed by the country’s more well-known areas, the province has been transformed by years of war. In mid-2015, a disparate alliance of rebels rolled across Idlib, cementing a hold that continues today. In the years since, displaced fighters and civilians from across Syria have poured in, often on buses as part of evacuation agreements with the government, including thousands of recent arrivals from the apocalyptic fighting in eastern Ghouta. They now make up nearly half of Idlib’s roughly 2.6 million inhabitants, living alongside thousands of hardened jihadists, including the al-Qaeda- linked fighters who hold sway in the province.
Busy with grinding campaigns elsewhere in the country, the Assad regime has delayed a full-on invasion, settling instead for years of bombing raids by Russian and Syrian warplanes. Among these was an infamous sarin attack against the town of Khan Sheikhoun last April that killed scores of people, including around 30 children. But with the government now looking increasingly triumphant, a major assault to retake the province appears forthcoming.
THE OFFENSIVE – part of President Assad’s vow to reclaim “every inch” of Syria – could be cataclysmic.
Like other major Syrian battles, it would almost certainly be accompanied by the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of highly populated areas, as well as the deliberate targeting of hospitals and schools. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians would be trapped and in danger, including many of the province’s roughly one million youngsters, the targets of what the UN has labeled “a war on children.”
The fighting, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, could trigger a surge of up to a million people north toward the Turkish border, among them battle-tested jihadists. The humanitarian and political ramifications of such a large-scale migration, including the possibility of another round in Europe’s refugee crisis, cannot be understated.
The shadow of an Idlib offensive looms larger still because of recent actions by President Donald Trump, who recently froze $200 million in recovery funds for Syria and vowed to bring home “very soon” the roughly 2,000 US military personnel deployed to the country. Such a move, which fellow Republican Sen.
Lindsey Graham called “the single worst decision the president could make,” would imperil long-term efforts to defeat ISIS. It would also send a frighteningly clear signal to Bashar Assad and his backers in Moscow and Tehran that America is ready to cede any strategic advantage – and moral high ground – it has earned fighting the terrorist group.
There is no panacea for the West to stop the horrors taking place in Syria. This has been the problem with the civil war since it erupted in 2011: With no simple solution to stop the carnage and little desire to become entangled in it, the easiest choice has been to do nothing at all. Instead, the US and its allies have pursued a narrower counterterrorism campaign against ISIS while skirting the more intractable issues driving the larger conflict. The result is sadly predictable. Each time the Assad regime ratchets up the violence in a particular battle, the West embarks on a now-tired pattern of indignation, condemnation, and the passing of a cease-fire that fails to halt the slaughter.
This time must be different: The US and its partners must take proactive measures to curb the bloodbath before a full-on assault begins. The White House should state publicly and unequivocally that war crimes by Syrian troops and their allies, including the bombing of densely packed civilian areas with conventional munitions, will trigger a military response against Assad’s government as forceful as the barrage of cruise missiles that US forces unleashed on a Syrian air base following the gas attack at Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017.
Washington should also begin laying the groundwork for an evacuation corridor to begin moving civilians out of the province, possibly to areas of Syria now under the control of anti-ISIS coalition forces and their local partners.
Our European allies have a role to play as well. With none of them eager to deal with another surge of refugees, they should commit to providing the funds for housing and humanitarian assistance for relocated civilians.
None of these actions will solve the crisis in Syria.
But together they offer the only real chance to mitigate what could be the conflict’s most tragic episode yet.
The author has lived in Syria and is currently a graduate student focusing on national security, intelligence and diplomacy at the University of Texas’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. His work has been featured in publications including The Jerusalem Post, The Dallas Morning News and Task & Purpose.