Idlib proves the world has turned its back on Syria

It would be a stretch to argue that Bashar Al Assad would have acted in the best interests of Syrians had he been invited to the Tehran summit.

By Arnab Neil Sengupta

Published: Sun 9 Sep 2018, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 9 Sep 2018, 10:13 PM

In the build-up to Friday's trilateral summit in Tehran, the United Nations envoy for Syria had pleaded with the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey to go for a "soft solution" with regard to the situation in Syria's Idlib. This was, to put it mildly, no gathering of Nobel Peace Prize aspirants.
In the event, the 'solution' that emerged from the meeting in the Iranian capital was open disagreement among the participants, hardly the stuff to deter the Syrians and Russians from going ahead with their planned military assault on the last major stronghold of anti-government fighters.
The West and its regional partners have a moral duty to help the freedom-loving, traumatised people of Idlib rather than just wring their hands in despair over the prospect of neighbourhoods being bombarded from the air and subjected to poison-gas attacks.
Syrians should not have been abandoned by humanity for the crime of demanding political rights, dignity and economic opportunity way back in 2011. They should not be abandoned again, seven years later.
The risks involved in carrying out military operations amidst Idlib's estimated 2.9 million people, including a million children, are neither unknown nor disputed.
Even so, the appeals of world leaders seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Moscow, Damascus and Tehran judging by the wave of aerial attacks launched soon after the close of the trilateral summit.
It would be a stretch to argue that Bashar Al Assad would have acted in the best interests of Syrians had he been invited to the Tehran summit.
But what about the moral obligations of Russia's Vladimir Putin?
At the outset of the Syrian civil war, he could have used his clout to push Assad out and find a friendly replacement who was slightly more acceptable to the Syrian population, the opposition and the international community.
Instead, Putin opted to stand by Assad at all costs, having seen in the authoritarian Syrian state the hallmarks of a kindred regime.
If there was a shred of doubt about the degree of convergence between Moscow and Damascus, it was dispelled by Putin's rejection of Turkey's Idlib ceasefire proposal.
In contrast with Putin's performance, the Tehran meeting offered a welcome respite to Iran's President Hassan Rouhani from the harsh media glare that has accompanied the economic turbulence buffeting the country for months now. It must have been quite a struggle for the poster boy of Iran's moderates to get his mind off his domestic worries to be able to focus sufficiently on the idea of a ceasefire before also rejecting it.
As for Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Tehran summit presented an opportunity to forestall an assault that could adversely affect the Turkish military presence in Idlib, weaken his hand in future negotiations within the Astana framework, and trigger a huge influx of refugees along the border with Syria.
Although his opposition to the Idlib offensive was couched in humanitarian terms, Erdogan's past actions, notably the military assault he ordered in March on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin adjoining Idlib, have demonstrated the selective nature of his concern for civilians.
That being said, if the day of reckoning in Idlib somehow gets indefinitely postponed and "a grave humanitarian mistake" (as US President Donald Trump put it) is averted due to the dissonant voices at the Tehran summit, it would be churlish to deny Erdogan a modicum of credit.
In the final analysis, Assad, having tasted victory in a string of battles with rebels, is raring for a fight in Idlib in order to take control of [Syria's] entire national territory" (as Putin describes it) and turn the clock back to a time before the popular protests against his authoritarian rule erupted.
Not only is Idlib in his sights, he is equally keen to oust the Syrian Kurds who, jointly with their local Arab partners, control between 25 and 30 per cent of Syrian territory with the help of the US-led international coalition assembled to fight Daesh.
The SDF is being alternately wooed and intimidated by the Assad regime, which is banking on Trump's misguided insular impulses to spur him into withdrawing the 2,000-strong American force from Syria and to leave the Kurds in the northeast to twist in the wind.
Against this complicated backdrop, the best hope is that ideological differences and conflicts of interests will keep Russia, Iran and Turkey in perennial tension, preventing a complete carve-up of Syria by foreign leaders driven by geopolitical objectives and shallow pride.
But since hope is not a strategy, the West and its Arab partners should keep highlighting the humanitarian obligations of all parties to the conflict; set up channels of communication with any side that evinces a genuine interest in de-escalation; and reinvigorate their ties with moderate actors who can help stabilise and eventually rebuild Syria.
At the Tehran summit, Rouhani said, "fighting terrorism in Idlib was an unavoidable part of the mission to restore peace and stability to Syria." What he left unsaid was that a headlong military operation would inevitably touch off a fresh cycle of violence and sow more seeds of distrust.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on the Middle East

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