The heartbreaking plight of 700,000 Syrians displaced by President Bashar Assad’s murderous Idlib campaign in recent weeks is comparable in scale to Myanmar’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingya, despite receiving pitiful levels of media attention. Half of Syria’s 22 million pre-war population has to date been uprooted, with many of Idlib’s refugees having endured multiple displacements. Freezing conditions are killing the most vulnerable, with volumes of aid entering the province proving woefully inadequate.
Yet this is a humanitarian catastrophe wrapped up in a geopolitical quagmire. In recent days, Syrian regime troops and Iranian proxies killed 13 Turkish soldiers and besieged Turkish observation posts. Turkey retaliated, killing dozens of regime troops and paramilitary personnel. A furious President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vows to use force to push back Syrian regime forces and hit targets “anywhere” if his troops are attacked again. With untold thousands slaughtered, the violence threatens to send three million refugees fleeing into Turkey, which already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
Meanwhile Israel, with US support, is growing bolder in striking explicitly Iranian targets throughout Syria and Iraq. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel were killed last week in an Israeli airstrike on Damascus Airport, apparently targeting an Iranian aircraft shipping munitions for Assad’s bloody Idlib campaign. This is just one of dozens of strikes against Syria-based IRGC targets in recent weeks, with the US also showing increased readiness to act against IRGC’s regional assets; not least with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, and the impounding of Iranian shipments of weapons bound for the Houthis. With even valued proxies like Hezbollah facing sharp financial cuts resulting from US sanctions, this relentless military pressure inevitably erodes Tehran’s ability to continuously bankroll its overseas warmongering.
Human rights groups have documented atrocities and ethnic cleansing in eastern Syria by Arab militias under Turkish command, while US troops were recently involved in skirmishes with pro-Assad elements. Shared enmity toward Erdogan may bring the Kurds and Assad closer together, one consequence of which would be to allow Iran increased influence in the strategically crucial east.
Despite being on opposing sides, Turkey and Russia have thus far interacted with relative amity in carving up their respective Syrian spheres of influence. President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan’s 2018 Sochi deal mapped out a demilitarized zone in Idlib, providing for monitoring roles for Turkish and Russian troops. The two leaders spoke by phone after the latest escalations, and both a Russian delegation and US envoy James Jeffrey visited Ankara.
Observers stopped trying to count Syria’s death toll many years ago after it soared beyond 600,000. It perhaps now exceeds a million.
Moscow could potentially play a decisive role in compelling Assad to accept that the pacification of Idlib is prohibitively costly, given that the regime has few prospects of regaining the province without immense Russian assistance. There is little for Putin to gain from a long, grinding campaign and he perhaps values the relationship with Ankara more highly.
Nevertheless, all sides are currently playing hardball in seeking to maximize their narrow interests.
Western diplomats should be energetically pushing key players toward de-escalation, not least as Erdogan has repeatedly hinted at the option of maliciously forcing refugees out of Turkey into Europe. European states must stop pretending that the indefinite continuation of this war is none of their business, not least in terms of mass movements of refugees, terrorism, region-wide destabilization and Tehran’s attempts to push its sphere of influence through to Europe’s southeastern frontiers.
If Ankara and Moscow can reach an understanding over Idlib, they should be encouraged to decisively curtail Iran’s involvement throughout Syria, which is inimical to the long-term interests of both sides. While Turkey and Russia would benefit from finding a peaceful resolution to this conflict which constitutes a burdensome financial drain, Tehran exploits the fog of war to reinforce its dominant regional posture and sees these Arab states as a staging point for attacking its many enemies. Russia has far fewer ideological affiliations with Iran than it has with Israel, so it is long past time to bring this ill-omened marriage of convenience to an end.
Observers stopped trying to count Syria’s death toll many years ago after it soared beyond 600,000. It perhaps now exceeds a million, with millions more lives destroyed through horrific injuries, psychological trauma, the miseries of exile, and the loss of meaningful futures.
Efforts by Turkey, Russia, Israel and Iran to carve out respective spheres of influence over the blood-stained rubble of Syria constitute meaningless lines in the sand. These will quickly be wiped away when the Syrian nation ultimately succeeds in overcoming tyranny and taking destiny in its own hands.
Just because Assad and his genocidal cronies and Russian and Iranian enablers today revel in illusions of impunity for their epic-scale crimes against humanity this doesn’t mean that their situation won’t have radically changed in five or 10 years time.
This is graphically illustrated by the recent willingness of Sudan’s new administration to consider transferring former president and war criminal Omar Al-Bashir to The Hague criminal court. I remember traveling to interview Bashir. His henchmen pressured me not to mention the Hague indictment (I did of course), and ridiculed the prospect of him ever seeing justice. Ironically, some of those henchmen remain embedded within this new administration negotiating to hand Bashir over, as a cheap route to curry favor with the West.
Nevertheless, the international community’s recurrent failures in enforcing international law, and shameful inaction over Syria will come back to haunt leaders in the near future, as well as in the history books.
We hope that families of the countless victims of Bashir, Assad, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Putin and other war criminals will eventually see justice done, but equally in Syria all sides must make urgent efforts to bring this senseless, monstrous war to an end once and for all.