By Michael Isenberg.
What a difference a few days make.
I wrote in my Mideast Week in Review on Friday that Idlib province, in northwest Syria, was under siege by Russian and Syrian government forces. Idlib is the last rebel stronghold in the country (not counting Turkish and Kurdish-controlled areas) and a government victory there would signal that Syria's long, bloody civil war was nearing its end, with the ruthless dictator Bashar Assad coming out on top. World leaders were alarmed about a looming humanitarian disaster for the three million civilians living in Idlib. The possible use of chemical weapons was a particular concern, with all parties staking out their positions in case of that eventuality.
Although fears of an imminent ground attack had eased—Russian air strikes had tapered off at the end of the week—the prospect of a negotiated settlement was dim. There was just too little that the government and the rebels, who are overwhelmingly jihadist, had to offer each other. An attempt was made nevertheless; it failed. A summit was held the previous weekend in Tehran between Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Russia’s Vladimir Putin—who are allied with the Assad regime—and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, who sides with the rebels. But the conference broke up without reaching agreement on Idlib.
announced in a press conference that they had agreed to create a 10-to-20 mile demilitarized buffer zone between Russian/Syrian and rebel forces. The attack on Idlib was off—for now.
There appears to have been two factors in President Putin’s change of heart between Tehran and Sochi. One was that he has bigger fish to fry. It is significant that in his statement at the press conference, he led off with remarks about Russian-Turkish trade and cultural ties, rather than Idlib. One can only hope that he is beginning to find the Russian commitment to propping up Syria’s Assad to be a drain on his country’s resources, and wishes to focus on more productive pursuits.
But perhaps more significant is the buildup of Turkish forces in and around Idlib. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported seeing a military convoy cross the border from Turkey into the region on Thursday. According to The Independent,
Turkey has amassed armoured vehicles, artillery guns, and tanks along the border with Syria, with some equipment moving across the frontier, according to Turkish news outlets and video footage posted to the internet.
Turkey has also begun to bolster a dozen outposts it operates in and around Idlib with additional troops and military vehicles...
It has transferred arms and ammunition to its Free Syria Army (FSA) rebel allies, pro-Ankara newspapers reported, though some experts say the distribution of weapons won’t affect the outcome of any conflict...
Syrian forces aided by Russian air power could easily overrun the outposts. But Turkey’s moves have upped the geopolitical cost of any attempt to take Idlib by the pro-Assad camp.
Although the Turkish escalation wasn’t considered enough to alter the military outcome, it appears to have given Putin second thoughts. There’s a lesson here. It doesn’t take much to get a bully to back down—provided you show you’re serious about backing up your words with action.
US President Donald Trump had some words of his own on the subject—he tweeted on September 3 that “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province”—but he does not appear to have influenced Mr. Putin significantly. That Sochi was a Turkish/Russian show just goes to demonstrate how far the US has to go to regain a leadership role in the region after so many years of Barack Obama’s feckless policy of unenforced "redlines."
While the delay of any attack is good news for the people of Idlib, it is unclear what the long term result will be. The Syrian government, through its official news agency SANA, said that it “welcomed the agreement on Idleb Province.” But it described the plan as “time-bound” and promised that the Assad regime was still committed to “reestablishing security and stability to each inch that was struck by terrorism as it stresses determination to go ahead in its war against terrorism until all the Syrian territories are liberated whether by military operations or by local reconciliations.”
The end game in Syria is now very much up in the air.
Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com
Photo credit(s): Reuters