In what is seen as the final showdown between President Bashar al-Assad and his allies’ forces, and anti-government fighters and terrorist groups, the stakes could not be higher. With key cities and towns, such as Deir ez-Zor, Ghouta, and Deraa retaken by regime forces, there are few remaining pockets of opposition. Idlib, located in northwestern Syria, has become the new centre of conflict between the two belligerents. On the cusp of final victory, President Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are insistent that they are taking all precautions in limiting the cost of the campaign on civilians living in Idlib and its surrounding areas. Indeed, the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov has stated that Russia seeks a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. There are an estimated 2.9 million people in Idlib, with as many as one million children, many of whom are internally displaced persons from other parts of Syria. The United Nations says that as many as 800,000 could be displaced as a result of the siege.
The United States President Donald Trump has tweeted in response, saying, “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!” Meanwhile, the UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura warns of a “perfect storm” if the siege escalates into a full-scale offensive. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, has told Deutsche Welle that the fighting could lead to one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades. The extent to which the United States and its western allies can put pressure on pro-regime forces remains limited. Trinity University of San Antonio, Texas history professor David Lesch told the Voice of America that, “I don’t think there’s anything the United States can do about it. I think Russia and the Syrian government and their allies are dead-set on taking Idlib.” Thus, the question remains if the U.S.-led coalition will launch limited strikes against Assad’s forces—such was the case on April 7, 2017 with the United States’ strike on the Shayrat airbase and on April 14, 2018, in which the United States, France, and the United Kingdom coordinated strikes on Syrian government and military installations.
To ensure that the battle over Idlib does not result in a massive humanitarian disaster, like that which plagues Yemen at the moment, it is paramount that the warring factions work to reduce the impact of the fighting on civilians. It is vital that humanitarian organizations be allowed to assist civilians, the wounded, and sick without impediments. It is also imperative that Syria, Russia, and Iran remain responsible actors throughout the course of the battle.
In order to best understand the significance of the fight for Idlib in the context of the Syrian Civil War, wider Middle Eastern geopolitics, and U.S.-Russia relations, it is essential to unpack how the more than seven years’ conflict has unfolded. In 2011, swept up by the spirit of the Arab Spring, Syrian reformers seeking socio-economic and political change protested. The Syrian regime responded by working to crush all opposition. Soon, hostilities broke out between pro-government forces and supporters and the opposition, led most prominently by the Free Syrian Army. Terrorist groups soon poured into the country, thus complicating the situation and evolving the conflict into a regional matter. Much of Syria’s territory was taken by opposition forces, including some of the country’s largest cities, such as Aleppo, Homs, and Raqqa.
Beginning in 2014 and 2015, respectively, the United States and Russia became involved in the civil war. The United States sought to support forces that would topple the Assad regime, while Russia sought to prop up the regime and maintain its vital port in Tartus and air base near Latakia. With these great powers’ intervention, the conflict was internationalized. The United States allied with several of its Western and Gulf state partners, while Russia allied with Iran. Gradually, up to this moment, Syria and its international allies have retaken much of its lost territory, including most of the aforementioned cities.
Syria, Russia, and Iran have much at stake in the retaking of Idlib. Not only is it seen as the last major battle of the war, but its success and geopolitical impact have figured highly in the minds of government leaders in Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran. All three countries view a regime victory as a riposte against a Western-led coalition aimed at unseating Assad. However, the situation for civilians on the ground must remain a prime concern for President Assad in the post-conflict transition. In order to rebuild the country and restore a civil society, Assad must gain the confidence of the Syrian people and promote a spirit of reconciliation. To start, Assad and his allies must adhere to international norms in the fight for Idlib.
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