After Khan Sheikhoun, world will wring hands as Syria's Idlib burns

The entanglement of so many regional powers in Idlib highlights the precariousness of peace in Syria, and the international community is doing little to stop the carnage

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It was April 2017, and Khan Sheikhoun was already a ghost town.

The Syrian town, a gateway into the rebel-controlled province of Idlib, had just suffered the second-deadliest suspected chemical attack in six years of war. More than 80 people had perished, including children.

Why? The question was on the lips of many I met in the city when I visited it two days after the attack. Rumours of an impending assault by the regime of Bashar Al Assad had been rife, but what was the point of risking international opprobrium? The answer seemed obvious. Sheer terror had emptied the town, a strategically vital piece of territory.

Khan Sheikhoun is now a ghost town once again. On Tuesday, the extremist rebels who had occupied the town announced that they were pulling out, scoring another victory for Mr Al Assad's troops in their inexorable march towards military domination, enabled by the Russian air force and Iran's military and economic support.

Syrian civilians flee on August 21, 2019 a conflict zone in Syria's rebel-held northwestern region of Idlib, where government bombardment has killed hundreds since late April. Damascus said on August 22 it is opening a corridor for civilians to leave the Idlib province. Damascus has opened such corridors out of other rebel bastions in the past as a prelude to retaking them either by force or through negotiated surrenders. The Idlib region, which sits on the Turkish border, is now the last major stronghold of opposition to the Russia-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The manoeuvre has been long in the making, and the humanitarian disaster left in its wake is already unfolding, with many of the 34,000 people who live in the town having fled. The entanglement of so many regional powers highlights the precariousness of any peace, present or future, in Syria. But the battle to reclaim Idlib has also served to show the sheer inertia and absence of any statesmanlike vision to resolving the conflict. The status quo in Idlib had always been untenable, its civilians caught in the crossfire of a regime willing to perpetrate any war crime to continue existing, an extremist network of rebel fighters bent on imposing its own radical agenda, and an international community willing to risk nothing beyond hand-wringing from the sidelines.

The international community are willing to risk nothing beyond hand-wringing from the sidelines

Victory in Khan Sheikhoun was an essential waypoint on the road to reclaiming all of Idlib, territory that has been governed by rebels since they ousted the regime in a spring offensive in 2015. The city lies on the M5 highway, a thoroughfare linking Syria’s former commercial capital of Aleppo with Homs in central Syria with Damascus to the south. Control of the road has long been a strategic objective for the regime. Control of Khan Sheikhoun also allows the regime to cut off rebels in neighbouring Hama province, who have stubbornly and for years held fast against countless regime air raids and offensives.

Most of Idlib province is under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), the former affiliate of Al Qaeda, which has tried to impose its own version of totalitarian control on residents. HTS emerged as the pre-eminent rebel faction after internecine conflict cannibalised the rest of the opposition.

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows Khan Sheikhoun in the southern countryside of Idlib March 16, 2015. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

There are other parts of the country that aren’t under Mr Al Assad’s control, but they aren’t controlled by the opposition either – Raqqa and much of the northeast is held by Kurdish militias backed by the United States, and parts of the north are held by Syrian militias that are proxies of Turkey.

The battle for Idlib had been stalled until earlier this month. A campaign that began in April had led to limited and reversible territorial gains, but nevertheless caused unimaginable human suffering – more than half a million people displaced and dozens of hospitals, schools, markets and bakeries were targeted, according to the United Nations, and nearly a thousand civilians killed according to the estimates of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The regime has long sought to create a shooting gallery in Idlib, allowing the opposition that surrendered in other parts of the country to accept forced displacement to the province. Now there are three million people there, half of whom have been displaced, some more than five times. Many are crowded into refugee camps near the Turkish border, with nowhere to go.

HTS’s domination of the province, achieved over many stages, has allowed the regime to pitch the battle as one meant to dislodge the extremists. Mr Al Assad has vowed to reclaim every inch of Syria, a key pledge to his supporters, and may hope that a decisive victory that puts an end to the armed opposition will force the hand of an international community that remains reluctant to engage with it or furnish the regime with reconstruction aid.

After the breakdown of a brief ceasefire earlier this month, the campaign now appears to be in full swing after gaining full-throated Russian backing, with Moscow this week acknowledging it has ground troops in the province, aiding the advance.

But this international dimension is part of what makes Idlib such a tinderbox. Turkey has maintained a number of observation points throughout the province, part of a now-defunct ceasefire deal to monitor the area. This week, a Turkish military convoy was targeted by regime air strikes, with Syria claiming that Ankara was trying to reinforce rebel lines with arms.

Turkey is particularly sensitive to large-scale military operations in Idlib due to the potential of a refugee influx from the province. The country already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, something that is a lightning rod among ordinary Turks, with recent political campaigns promising to send Syrians back to their country.

Ankara has long argued that its military intervention in Syria has created safe zones that allowed for the return of tens of thousands of refugees, but that narrative is at risk if the violence continues to force hundreds of thousands of Syrians from their homes, fleeing bombardment. Direct clashes with Syrian forces are also still possible.

Ultimately, however, the carnage that is taking place and that is likely to take place in Idlib is frustratingly predictable. A status quo in which the extremists of HTS remained in control of the province indefinitely is intolerable, particularly to the Syrians living under their yoke. The only alternatives were a Turkish occupation of the province, or a regime-orchestrated bloodbath.

For over a year now, the town’s predicament has highlighted the desperate need to kick-start the moribund internationally-backed peace process. But having failed to take action to halt the destruction, the international community failed at even a cursory attempt to make peace.

The price will, as always, be paid for by innocent civilians.