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Big-power competition is playing out in Syria’s Idlib province, and civilians are paying the price

There are few good guys in Syria’s Idlib province, at least not with any real power. For those who do have power, the fate of civilians is just one of many issues.

Maarat al-Numan, Idlib province
Residents inspect the rubble of damaged buildings, looking for victims, after a deadly airstrike, said to be in Maarat al-Numan, Idlib province, on August 28.
Syria Civil Defence in the Governorate of Idlib/Handout via REUTERS

It’s an area a bit smaller than Itasca or Beltrami counties. Three million people, or a little more than half the population of Minnesota, are trapped there and trying to survive; two-thirds are women and children. And for anyone who thought it was all history by now, some of the biggest stories of recent years – the hunt for Al Qaeda, mass migration, the failure of the Arab Spring and big-power competition – still are playing out there. 

Unfortunately, there are few good guys in Syria’s Idlib province, at least not with any real power. For those who do have power, the fate of civilians is just one of many issues. Their calculations may make your head spin.

Idlib, which rests along the Turkish border, is one of the last major stronghold of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, which is backed by Russia and Iran. Russia, which is trying to rebuild its role in the region and its international influence, is deeply involved in Syria – and Idlib in particular.  

The United Nations reported recently that more than a thousand civilians had died in Idlib and neighboring Hama provinces in the past four months, almost all of them from attacks by Assad’s forces and their allies. A senior official warned the Security Council that Idlib could turn into the worst humanitarian disaster of the century so far, and pointedly asked: “Are you again going to shrug your shoulders … or are you going to listen to the children of Idlib, and do something about it?”

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The U.N. and aid agencies often warn of dire humanitarian failures. Still, those are pretty strong words. But as long as Russia holds veto power, the Security Council’s hands are tied. 

A reminder: An estimated 400,000 people have died in Syria since violence started during the Arab Spring of 2011. More than half of Syria’s 21 million people are internally displaced or have fled the country altogether. Assad faces multiple accusations of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons. The United States opposes Assad, and his alliances with Tehran and Moscow, but under Presidents Obama and Trump has avoided intervening. Trump did authorize airstrikes in April 2018 after one chemical attack. 

Further complicating matters, the two strongest rebel forces in Idlib both grew out of Al Qaeda. One functions independently and is focused on the fight against Assad. But the other is loyal to the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s organization, and some analysts say it has its sights on attacking the West again

The United States launched strikes against what it said were Al Qaeda affiliates on July 1 and Aug. 31. In the latter attack, Central Command said it was aiming at those “responsible for attacks threatening U.S. citizens, our partners and innocent civilians.” The BBC quoted other sources as saying 40 people were killed in an attack on a jihadist training camp. While few are going to have much sympathy for an Al Qaeda affiliate, the U.S. action could serve to weaken those fighting to keep Idlib out of Assad’s hands.

Recent civilians deaths reported by the U.N. in Idlib are the result of an offensive Assad and his allies are carrying out despite a truce deal a year ago. This is where Turkey comes in. Under that agreement, Turkish and Russian forces were to monitor the truce, and Turkey was supposed to rein in the militant groups – which it can’t, or won’t, do. 

In contrast to Russia, Iran is treading carefully regarding Idlib. Analysts say that’s because Iran wants Turkish help withstanding Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic. 

Turkey, for its part, staunchly opposes Assad — but really doesn’t want to see more refugees streaming across the border from Idlib as Syrian forces advance. There already are 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey

Syrians were a main contingent among the refugees who also overwhelmed Europe in 2015 and permanently upended its politics. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cut a deal with the European Union to keep refugees in Turkey in exchange for European aid. But Turkey is struggling economically, the refugees are increasingly unpopular, and Erdogan threatened last week to reopen the route to Europe if it doesn’t provide more aid

But Idlib isn’t the only thing on Erdogan’s mind when he talks to the Russians. Much to the Trump administration’s anger, NATO member Turkey is buying a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile system. Erdogan hurried to Moscow at the end of August, and Idlib was on the agenda for his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin also took him to an air show where lots more shiny new hardware was on display (and for sale, presumably). Veteran journalism Semih Idiz pointed out that the air show – not Idlib — is what pro-Erdogan Turkish media chose to highlight from the trip

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To recap: Assad with Russian help is trying to crush Idlib, including the Al Qaeda affiliates. Turkey and Russia are backing opposite sides, but also cutting bilateral arms deals. Neither Europe nor Turkey want more Syrian refugees. Iran’s trying to forestall U.S. economic pressure. The United States opposes Assad and his allies, and also the Al Qaeda groups — but in attacking the latter, might inadvertently assist the former. 

Notice what’s missing? It’s unclear how, exactly, those 3 million people fit in.