The Fight For Syria's Idlib Could Be An “Archduke Ferdinand” Moment For NATO
By now there have been countless reports and official warnings about an impending bloodbath in Syria's Idlib province, where the Syrian military – backed by Russian air and ground forces, Iranian troops, and Hezbollah fighters – is poised to mount an offensive against the last significant rebel-held territory.
There is also a danger that these warnings – coming from the United Nations, human rights organisations, a multitude of world leaders, and nearly every journalist who has ever covered this story – will be ignored as hyperbole. This would be a grave mistake. There are multiple factors that make this impending offensive the most dangerous event to happen in Syria – for the country, the region, and the world – since perhaps the 2013 chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus.
The most important thing to remember about Idlib is that it is the one place where President Bashar Assad has lost nearly every battle he has ever fought. As protests spread across Syria in 2011, Idlib became the centre for some of Assad's most outspoken critics. Nearly every town, no matter how small, hosted impressively large and energised anti-government protests. This is the region where the Free Syrian Army (FSA) first liberated territory from Assad's rule, eventually leading to what amounts to the creation of an independent state in the northwest. Its mountainous terrain has spelled disaster for Syrian troops, tanks, and helicopters alike.
Its proximity to Turkey has always meant that the rebels there – whether they be U.S.-backed moderate groups like the FSA, Turkish-backed units, or al Qaeda-linked forces armed by wealthy foreign patrons – have always had access to significant amounts of firepower, supplies, and ammunition. It is from Idlib that various rebel groups first assaulted Homs, Hama province, then Aleppo, and ultimately the regime stronghold in Latakia. In fact, it was the strength of the rebels in Idlib and their advances in Latakia that inspired Russian forces to intervene in this conflict in 2015.
As the pro-Assad coalition made advances elsewhere in Syria, they continued to lose territory in Idlib. Furthermore, Assad made deals with rebel units in places like Darayya and elsewhere, allowing fighters and civilians alike to abandon territory in the rest of the country in exchange for being relocated to Idlib province. Even more rebels voluntarily withdrew to Idlib as their territory shrank elsewhere. In other words, not only has Assad consistently and decidedly lost battles in Idlib province, the rebels there may be stronger than they ever were, and that was before Turkey's recent shipments of arms and munitions to fighters there.
And, of course, this time there is nowhere else to run. Any assault on Idlib will leave the rebels with two choices, both of which could have disastrous consequences: stay and fight to the end, or flee across the border into Turkey.
I am quite confident that the Syrian military's terrible performance in Idlib is first and foremost on the minds of those who are currently massing on its borders. In the past, when the regime and its backers faced hardened targets, they resorted to the worst kind of warfare. Rather than retake the Damascus suburbs, or Homs, or Aleppo in street battles, the regime and its allies flattened those areas with artillery, barrel bombs, cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and chemical weapons.
Assad's fighters have survived for seven long years. They will exterminate the residents of Idlib long before they are themselves massacred in its taking. And while they will do so in the name of defeating terrorists – and there are, to be sure, plenty of Islamist extremists in Idlib – there will be far more civilian casualties, and the last vestiges of both the civilian and combatant pro-democratic forces will be wiped out as well.
In fact, all signs point to an impending chemical weapons attack. Both the Russian and Syrian state-run media outlets and governmental spokespersons have already started to spin the yarn that Islamic State or other extremists are plotting large-scale chemical weapons attacks – attacks on a scale that the rebels are not capable of conducting, according to experts who repeatedly spoke to this author – and that the extremists will blame these attacks on Russia, the Syrian government, and Iran.
Some of the reports are disturbingly specific – that four such attacks have been planned. This indicates that if the regime does launch a chemical attack it will potentially be on a scale not yet witnessed in this conflict.
All of this is bad, but the worst scenario inside Syria may pale in comparison to the worst possible outcome – a regional or perhaps even global war, triggered by a conflict between Turkey – a NATO ally – and the pro-Assad coalition.
On September 13, more evidence emerged that Turkey has deployed tanks deep inside Syria, in northern Hama province on the perimeter of Idlib. Furthermore, there is extensive evidence of a significant Turkish military build-up on the border with Syria. If the pro-Assad coalition strikes Idlib they may have to engage Turkish military forces first, an event that could trigger a massive regional or even global crisis.
There is one other potential consequence of the pending Idlib offensive that has not been widely discussed. In the summer of 2015, all signs pointed to a significant escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But in the last days of summer, Russia suddenly and drastically changed its behaviour, a peace process was put in place, and the situation deescalated.
At the time it was obvious to this author what had happened – Russia was preparing to intervene in Syria to prop up the failing Assad regime, and they could not risk fighting two major wars at once. What happens, then, if the Syrian conflict is wrapped up and Russian troops and mercenaries are again free to interfere in Ukraine?
There are already signs that Moscow is increasing its direct control over the unrecognised and self-declared “People's Republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk, most notably with the assassination of Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the Russian-backed fighters. A conflict with Turkey, even if it remains rhetorical, may actually increase the probability of Russia once again ramping up the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine since Kremlin rhetoric will frame both conflicts as Russia's struggle against “terrorists” backed by NATO forces.
Such scenarios must be avoided at all costs, but there is no clarity coming out of the White House, nor the rest of the international community, on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. The Trump administration, in particular, has not put forth any sort of coherent strategy. Trump's rhetoric has been weak on Russia, hawkish on Iran, and muddled towards Turkey.
Recent controversies in Washington have even suggested that Trump – who has bombed Iranian forces in Syria while repeatedly saying that the United States should work with Russia to find a solution to the conflict – even ordered the assassination of Assad, but high-level staffers sabotaged the order. His staff's rhetoric has been less muddled, perhaps, but at this point it is not clear who is calling the shots inside the White House. Perhaps the only way to avoid a sudden explosion in Syria is through robust diplomacy, backed by political unity, and thus overwhelming military superiority. As such, this crisis in leadership could not come at a worse time.
The U.S. strategy toward Syria has been deeply flawed from the beginning, and has perhaps only gotten worse. Thus far, however, and despite the repeated warnings from various experts, the consequences for the United States have been relatively contained. An attack on Idlib province, however, could be the “Archduke Ferdinand” moment, the catalyst for the explosion that has been the result of seven years of reckless foreign-policy chemistry.