Why so much alarm over Idlib?

So on March 5, the leaders of Germany, France and Russia, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin, were supposed to go to Istanbul to meet with “My Person”. This is how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refers to himself, especially when he meets with foreign leaders. The summit, yet another in a long list, was of course called by Erdoğan, with Merkel and Macron hastily jumping on board. Alas, it ended in fiasco with a stern rejection from Putin. 

The official topic of discussion was how to establish a ceasefire in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. But the hidden agenda for Europeans was how to make sure that Europe and particularly Germany will not get more refugees through Turkey via Greece thanks to this hypothetical ceasefire. And Ankara’s hidden agenda was to gain time for its jihadi protégés in Idlib.

The basic assumption is crystal clear: The ongoing operation of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russian Air Force dubbed “Redemption” generates refugees and that should be curtailed with a ceasefire. By the way, there has been not a single war on the earth which did not produce refugees! 

For months now, United Nations humanitarian agencies as well as civil society organisations have been ringing loud alarm bells for a king-size emergency which would result from the ongoing military operation to recover the pocket of Idlib in northwest Syria, packed with jihadi terrorists and a civilian population of around 3 million according to estimates. 

According to one of them, the UN Refugee Agency: “More than 900,000 people are estimated to have fled their homes or shelters in Idlib in recent months. Most are now in northern Idlib and Aleppo governorates, compounding the already disastrous humanitarian situation there, amidst freezing conditions.

“It is estimated that there are currently over four million civilians in north-west Syria. More than half are internally displaced. Many have been living in displacement for years and have been forced to flee several times. Some 80 per cent of the newly displaced are women and children. Many elderly people are also at risk.”

According to the Ankara regime’s envoy to the UN: “The crisis in Idlib is worsening. The regime continues targeting civilians, emptying out cities & villages. One million people became IDPs in the last two months. That is the biggest mass displacement since 2011. People in Idlib are caught between violence, freezing cold and the lack of food. This humanitarian tragedy has serious repercussions beyond Syria. The UNSC should raise its voice and give a clear message: The regime must stop killing its own people. Violations must immediately stop to avoid further worsening an already catastrophic humanitarian situation.” 

Finally last Wednesday 14 EU foreign ministers called for the cessation of Operation Redemption in a joint letter to La Stampa, arguing that a humanitarian catastrophe is taking place. 

There is no doubt that the Damascus regime is far from innocent. It bears the lion’s share of responsibility in the nine-year civil war. The Alawites, although in the minority, have ruled the Sunni majority Syria for decades with an iron fist.

The massacre perpetrated by Syrian government forces against the people of Hama to suppress the uprising of February 1982 showed genocidal traits. Around 20,000 people were massacred in three weeks, according to conservative estimates by human rights organisations. The massacre is considered as one of the worst mass crimes committed in the Middle East in the twentieth century.  Nevertheless, it was never investigated nor publicly addressed. The uprising of 2011 and the ensuing civil war have their roots in these countless violations committed in particular against Sunnis as well as the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. 

Nonetheless, after nine years of civil war things have changed dramatically. First and foremost, the uprising was completely radicalised and came under the influence of the Islamic State and al Qaeda. All sorts of foreign jihadists flocked in to join the Islamic State as it expanded. The opposition squandered all the sympathy it had initially amassed internationally. Today, next to the lip service of some Western countries, only Turkey with the financial help of Qatar stands by the opposition. It is almost certain that the jihadi opposition will not get anything worthwhile out of  future peace talks when the territory will be cleared of foreign invasion and interference. 

Unfortunately, within the present state of affairs, it is too late to call a ceasefire and frantically declare that the international community should find a political solution to the civil war. It is more than obvious that not only the international community has failed in that task, but the parties now hold irreconcilable positions. This is why the initial dispute turned into civil war.

When it comes to the “humanitarian catastrophe”, although there are still civilians killed and injured by shelling from both sides, the disputed towns are almost empty. And, there is growing evidence that civilians in Idlib and Aleppo provinces are more prone to go back to their homes following the demise of their jihadi sentinels than to cross into Turkey. This human desire to go back home applies not only to internally displaced people, but also to refugees as a recent UNHCR survey showed that 75.2 percent of Syrians in regional countries expressed their wish for voluntary repatriation.

As a matter of proof, towns that are being liberated by the SAA, once declared sufficiently safe, are quickly filled by their original inhabitants That has happened in almost every village since the beginning of Operation Redemption.

So what is all this alarmist concern about? The cynical calculations of Ankara and its jihadi proxies, the “refugeephobia” of Europeans and the opportunism of international aid agencies converge to declare an emergency that does not exist, at least in the magnitudes discussed.   

Europeans’ phobia is well documented, aid agencies’ opportunism is well known too, but Turkey

No other host country has abused its refugees as Turkey has. Cheap manpower, growing xenophobia, scapegoating Syrians for all ills... Many of the umbrella rebel group backed by Ankara, the so-called Syrian National Army, have been recruited among refugees in Turkey. Recently the King of Jordan gave a rightly indignant response to a question  on why it is not Jordan but Turkey that gets billions in financial aid: “Because we do not threaten Europe by pushing refugees towards Europe. Because we think that is a responsibility that should be taken care of by us in the area”.

It is constantly forgotten that it is not Turkey that has the highest refugee density compared to its population in the world but Lebanon followed by Jordan. Indeed, these two host countries never make a fuss about their guests, while Turkey constantly does.

In sum, Ankara’s call for a ceasefire, amplified naively or cynically by the international community, serves Ankara and its jihadi proxies to gain time to reorganise and to consolidate their presence in northern Syria. They know that when the ongoing operation succeeds it will be extended to other parts of Turkish-occupied lands, ending thereby Turkish influence in Syria.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.