Sometime in the near future, the U.S. government is likely to find itself debating another series of airstrikes to punish Syria for using chemical weapons, knowing full well they would accomplish little. If the past is any indication, Washington would then return to spluttering outrage from the sidelines as another humanitarian disaster reaches its climax.
The name Idlib may be vaguely familiar, but you’ll be hearing much more about it. The last big battle of the Syrian civil war is building there. The outcome already seems certain: The Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, will slowly crush this last major rebel enclave. There will be a lot of indiscriminate bombing and heavy casualties. Because he has before — and he’s willing to pay the price — it’s a good bet that Syrian President Bashar Assad will at some point resort to chemical weapons.
Turkey is trying to head off an attack. But a meeting Friday of the Turkish, Iranian and Russian presidents failed to find common ground. So troops mass around Idlib. Russian and Syrian aircraft pound it from above.
To point out the relatively small U.S. role in all this is not to argue for a major military response. The time is long past when Washington might have had a decisive say. Even near the beginning of the conflict more than seven years ago, President Obama could not persuade himself that U.S. action wouldn’t make things worse. President Trump has had a hard time deciding what to do.
There are nearly 3 million people, including a million children, trapped in Idlib. The U.N. says 98 percent of them are civilians, and warns that an assault would create a “perfect storm” of suffering. Unfortunately, many of those with the power to decide what happens are motivated largely by self-interest or Islamic extremism.
Assad wants to reassert control of the most populous parts of his country. A major highway connecting Damascus and Aleppo, which he recaptured two years ago, goes through Idlib. He has slowly chipped away at other rebel enclaves with Iranian and Russian help, pushing those who refuse to be reconciled into Idlib, where a reckoning now awaits.
For Iran, Syria secures its influence westward to Lebanon and to Israel’s border, and bolsters its position in the great competition with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the Middle East.
For Vladimir Putin, it’s about cementing Russia’s role as a player in the Middle East. Helping Assad capture Idlib would make the Syrian president even more beholden to Russia, and it would make Russia’s military bases on the Mediterranean more secure. Putin has concocted a cynical argument to try to get the West on board: effectively ending the civil war would make it possible for refugees to return home. Since refugees are such a big problem for European countries, according to this argument, they should help finance reconstruction — fixing stuff that Assad’s forces, aided by the Russians and Iranians, wrecked.
Turkey controls a section of Syrian territory just north of Idlib, along the border. At a time when its economy is tanking, it already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees. It has sealed the border, but worries that a full-on assault will send hundreds of thousands of refugees in desperate search of safety. Turkey also has troops in the Idlib enclave as part of an earlier deal with Russia and Iran to try to wind down the Syrian civil war.
Lest you think that the U.S. should come to the aid of the rebels, be aware that one of the dominant groups in Idlib is a former Al Qaeda affiliate that has been designated a terrorist group by the United States.
It was only five months ago that the United States, Britain and France launched airstrikes to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons in an offensive near Damascus, claiming they inflicted a “very serious blow” on his arsenal.
But last week, the U.S. special envoy for Syria said there was “lots of evidence” that Assad was preparing chemical weapons to use on Idlib. The White House has warned of a quick and harsh response if that happens.
Maybe so. But Assad wants this badly.
According to Bob Woodward’s new book, Trump wanted to assassinate Assad last year. But he also has been itching to get out of Syria altogether, ordering up plans this spring for a withdrawal of approximately 2,000 U.S. troops who are posted primarily in the sparsely populated northeast to assist the fight against the Islamic State.
For now, it appears U.S. forces are staying. Trump’s advisers view their presence as part of a strategy to counter Iran in the region. They also provide a bit of leverage with Assad and the Russians, making the Syrians and their allies stop and think about what they’re doing. Russian mercenaries took part in an assault on a U.S. outpost in eastern Syria in February, and were badly bloodied.
It’s unlikely anyone can prevent Assad from reclaiming Idlib. Maintaining the U.S. military presence, while working with the United Nations and Turkey to limit civilian suffering in Idlib may be about as good as it gets.