As inevitable as night follows day, the squeeze on the Syrian province of Idlib has continued with a recent dramatic escalation wondering if a full-scale attack could be on the cards.
Over the past fortnight some 120 people have been killed in attacks on the province and 160,000 people have fled deeper into the pocket and away from the front-lines. Many of these people will have already been displaced before and the latest round of violence is both another chapter of misery and a clarion call against those who would claim that the conflict is over.
The question remains as to the objection and scope of the intervention. The macro-strategy is the recovery of all Syrian territory to Government control, the micro-objective is to secure strategic roads and infrastructure and steadily make the reclaiming of the province inevitable and not something to be prevented by international outrage.
Yet outrage is gathering and the Germans, British and French issued a joint statement warning that the Ramadan offensive “is not about fighting terrorism. It is about pushing forward the ruthless reconquest by the regime”.
Few can doubt that it qualifies as ‘ruthless’. As with previous chapters of the war the tactics of targeting protected buildings, hospitals and health clinics continues unabated. Medical first responders, including the ‘White Helmets’, have warned of ‘mass extermination’, whilst Russian ‘news’ sites publish pieces accusing them of preparing ‘false flag’ attacks on themselves to garner global sympathy.
This is a record we’ve heard many times before. A reminder that the last redoubt of Opposition controlled Syria is currently home to some three million civilians including one million children. Perhaps the key difference to previous bloody chapters in Syria’s war is the physical and diplomatic presence of Turkey.
Whilst Western powers have been more ephemeral in their involvement and posture towards Syria, Turkey, host to record levels of Syrian refugees and possessing a long land border with the country, can’t afford to ignore the crisis.
Turkey's defence minister, Hulusi Akar, expressed concerns on Friday that the fighting also threatened the security of his country's observation posts that have been set up deep into the province. Akar explained that; "we expect Russia to take effective and determined measures to make regime forces stop their attacks on the south of Idlib and immediately return to the borders set by the Astana agreement."
The Astana agreement, like many similar efforts before it, has been a stop gap between offensives rather than a sustainable process towards a final piece. It was launched as a process with much fanfare in the capital of Kazakhstan in January 2017 by Russia and Iran, allies of the Syrian government, and Turkey, which has backed elements of the Opposition.
Turkey has a dual concern as to the future of the North-West, and what will happen to Idlib if there is a full offensive and the potential for millions of people flooding into its southern borderland, whilst also keeping an eye on the North-East where continued Kurdish sovereignty and an indecisive American presence muddy the water of any medium term solution.
The X-factor of US foreign policy could still play a part in the future of Idlib, one writer in the Washington Post speculated that ‘even a Presidential tweet could save lives’. Yet with the build up to the 2020 elections well underway and Trump allergic to sustained engagement in the Middle East, this would appear unlikely.
Indeed the bigger question is what influence Turkey is able to leverage on Russia and how that could help halt or even limit attacks in Idlib. The question that follows that is are the Russians able to de-escalate events on the ground or whether the disruption is destined to roll on? The Security Council has meanwhile sat to discuss the crisis but its previous resolutions have struggled to shape events on the ground.
Thus, Turkey remains the most powerful and positive influence towards peace in Idlib but faces an array of actors bent on more violent ends, a prospect that highlights the isolation that the civilians of Idlib currently have from any wider global protection in weeks ahead.
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