By Ty Joplin
The Syrian regime offensive to retake the last rebel stronghold, Idlib, now appears inevitable.
Attempts to declare a ceasefire or even delay the battle at a summit in Tehran failed: Russia continues to bomb areas near the frontline as Turkey ships into military reinforcements while warning of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Turkey’s heightened military presence throughout Idlib threatens to entangle the ambitious but crisis-riddled country with an entanglement that has no easy way out.
Stuck with neo-Ottoman foreign policy that calls for a rapid expansion of Turkey’s sphere of influence, a volatile currency that is rapidly losing value, and the potential to lose Turkish lives in Idlib, Erdogan is already trapped.
For their part, Russia and Syria may have decided that killing more Syrian civilians en masse is a necessary step to purging Syria of rebel groups.
The end result will be a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib that both sides could have mitigated.
Turkey, by opening its borders with Idlib and letting more refugees flow in. Russia, Iran and Syria by adopting strategies that actively avoid civilian casualties rather than writing them off as unavoidable collateral damage.
A reported convoy of Turkish vehicles headed towards Idlib (Twitter)
Turkish officials, including Erdogan, have been emphasizing the humanitarian dimension of the Idlib offensive, saying that it will be an utter catastrophe for the three million civilians that are currently trapped in Idlib. But Turley’s interests in controlling the situation in Idlib are political as well.
Currently Turkey has sent several convoys of soldiers and vehicles into and around Idlib. It maintains at least a dozen military outposts, many allowed to exist thanks an agreement with Iran, Syria and Russia to give Turkey a military presence in Idlib. It has positioned itself as the international voice of the rebel-controlled Idlib region. As such Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy agenda that seeks to establish Turkey as a formidable regional power, is partially at stake in the Idlib offensive.
When asked why Turkey was so deeply entrenched in Idlib despite the overwhelming military power pitted against the rebels inside, Ömer Özkizilcik, an analyst at the Ankara-based Middle East Foundation, emphasized Turkey’s shared borders with Idlib.
“Idlib is strategic for Turkey as it is located at the Turkish border. Many countries involved in Syria, may go out of the country in the future, but Turkey’s border to Syria won’t vanish,” he said to Al Bawaba.
Erdogan is likely seeking to control and contain an all-out assault, as that would send millions of Syrian refugees fleeing towards that border, one that is closed, and shows no sign of opening to create a humanitarian corridor. Erdogan himself reportedly said at the Tehran Summit that Turkey has no more capacity to host Syrian refugees.
Turkey has already taken in 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and its volatile economy has sent shockwaves of economic instability throughout Idlib, but Erdogan’s blaming of Russia and Syria for any upcoming humanitarian catastrophe belies the fact that he could prevent such a massacre by providing Idlib’s civilians safe haven.
Instead, Turkey has devoted a small contingent of its armed forces to deterring an assault, though time is running out: Russia has stepped up its bombings, and Syrian forces are amassing near the frontlines.
There is strong domestic resistance to the idea of opening the border to allow more Syrian refugees in.
Turkey state-backed media, Hurriyet Daily News reported on Aug 22 that the Idlib offensive could send upwards of 250,000 Syrians seeking entry into Turkey and the Turkish intelligence is pushing to keep them in safe zones inside Syria near the Turkish border.” In practical terms, this means keeping the borders shut while trusting that the regime will not attack the designated ‘safe-zones.’ One problem to this approach is that the entire region of Idlib is designated as a kind of ‘safe-zone.' This has not stopped the regime and its allies from preparing the offensive.
Amidst growing domestic resentment towards them, Turkish authorities have been deporting Syrians and denying many of them access to health care and education while shooting at, and at times killing, Syrians who are seeking to flee into Turkey according to Human Rights Watch.
A rebel inside Idlib threatened Erdogan in a video uploaded to Twitter, declaring that a tunnel had been dug to get into Turkey. “If you sell out Idlib, then this is your wall and that's our tunnel. We'll be in Reyhanli in less than two hours,” the rebel said. Reports have been surfacing that civilians, left with nowhere to go, have resorted to digging caves for themselves.
Hiding the Bodies of Civilians
Vladimir Putin (left) Iran President Hassan Rouhani (center) Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) in Tehran (Iran Presidency/AFP)
Syria, Russia and Iran, for their part, have shown minimal concern for civilians apart from offering perfunctory calls to avoid unnecessary deaths. To them, the Idlib offensive is a counter-terrorism operation that should not not be hindered by civilian deaths.
As a propaganda tool, Russian President Vladimir Putin has called Idlib a “nest of terrorists” while claiming that they are using civilians as human shields. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed Putin’s sentiments at a press conference and said, “what we need to do now is to wipe out those terrorist groups which persist, particularly within the de-escalation area of Idlib.”
During the failed Tehran Summit, Putin pre-empted the high civilian body count that will likely occur in Idlib, saying “terrorists do the same thing everywhere, all the time. They use human shields. The Russian military always tries to spare civilians.” In effect however, Russia’s tactics do not appear to be focused on avoiding civilian deaths.
Russian warplanes have struck targets south of Idlib, then quickly struck the same spot again to kill emergency first responders, in a move called a ‘double-tap strike.’ Russian propaganda has also spent years falsely claiming that the White Helmets are terrorist combatants partnered with Al Qaeda.
On the Idlib offensive specifically, Russian propagandists have circulated the unsubstantiated claim that the White Helmets are busy preparing a false-flag chemical attack. If White Helmets, are killed in strikes, it is not unlikely that Russia, Syria and Iran will count them as terrorists rather than noncombatants.
So far, Russian and Syrian airstrikes have reportedly killed at least 22 civilians according to a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Turkish and Western media outlets are framing the Idlib offensive as a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen, while Syrian, Russian and Iranian media outlets and politicians are talking of the offensive as a necessary step to secure Syria’s borders.
The primary victims of the offensive will undoubtedly by the civilians currently trapped by both sides. Turkey, to the West, appears unwilling to open its borders to allow them in, while the regime-aligned forces appear content to see them neutralized.
It will be a humanitarian disaster, and both sides will share blame.