With millions of civilians at risk in a looming military assault on Idlib, western powers warned the Syrian regime that use of chemical weapons would draw a strong retaliation.
Yet by pressing Russia to agree to a buffer zone, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has apparently averted the full-scale onslaught that the West was powerless to prevent.
American and European diplomats had been resigned to President Bashar Al Assad’s regime moving on Idlib. Their priority had been to draw a line against a chemical weapons assault.
The threat of military action was real but only if atrocities with poison gas had taken place. The US, French, British and perhaps even Germans, were ready to carry out a bombardment. President Erdogan and many others interpreted the position as a green light to conventional action – hence the meeting in Sochi with Vladimir Putin that delivered an apparent breakthrough on Monday night.
“International actors have basically told Assad you can move but don’t use chemical weapons,” said Julien Barnes Dacey, a Syrian specialist at the European Council for Foreign Relations. “It’s a depressing message that says a lot about where we are at.
“Europe and America are not putting much on the table to avert an onslaught.”
For those involved in humanitarian efforts to assist the Idlib population, a cold calculation was clear. “Western governments will ‘apparently’ do something if chemical weapons are used,” said Hamish de Bretton Gordon, who works with medical organisations in the area. “How ironic when chemical weapons have killed ‘only’ 2,000 in the last seven years but bombs and bullets over 500,000.”
He warns that the Syrians and their Russian allies could have even fudged a chemical attack while using propaganda to cover their tracks. “We are expecting a chemical attack in Idlib but Russia and Syria will try to cover this with disinformation, no doubt to put seeds of doubt in US, British and French governments' minds so they do not strike as they have said they will,” the former British army chemical warfare commander said.
After leaning towards a pullout, the Trump’s administration's summer appointment of veteran ambassador James Jeffrey as Syria envoy has brought an assurance that the US will maintain its forces there. The new policy in Syria, Mr Jeffrey said, was to contain Iran.
But Faysal Itani, who works at the Atlantic Council, said that after the capture of southern Syrian territory, the Damascus suburbs and Aleppo, the US had no “credibility or leverage” to stand in the way of the regime in Idlib or elsewhere.
In a policy paper written with Nate Rosenblatt for the Council last week, Mr Itani said US policy (and by extension that of the West as a whole) had reached a seven-year reckoning. The policy of establishing ceasefire zones, agreed with the Russians and Turks as well as Damascus, was effectively hobbled by a lack of enforcement mechanisms.
The overall western goal of installing a new, democratic political leadership is similarly unrealistic, according to their report. “A meaningful political transition – and therefore an enduring peace – is a stated US policy goal for Syria,” it said. “Yet Assad’s regime sees no gain in compromise unless perhaps to avoid a credible US-backed threat or use of military force.
“Iran and Russia cannot force the regime to do so unless they can credibly threaten to abandon it, which they will not do as it would carry unacceptable risks.”
In the short run, all sides have resorted to seeking small tactical gains either directly or through talks with Ankara or Moscow. Alistair Burt, the British minister for the Middle East, issued a statement of support for the Turkish diplomatic effort that apparently delivered on Monday
“The UK has been clear that a man-made catastrophe in Idlib is entirely avoidable,” Mr Burt said. “We support the urgent diplomatic efforts being made by Turkey and the UN. The Syrian regime and its supporters, Russia and Iran, must uphold the ceasefire they have previously agreed and respect international humanitarian law.”
Turkey and Russia said Monday a demilitarised zone between rebels and government forces in the Idlib region would be jointly patrolled by both states. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister said later there would be no assault by the Syrian military.
For Mr Erdogan the development provides some justification for his tilt towards better relations with Moscow and Tehran. Having spent months locked in confrontation with Turkey’s Nato partners, Mr Erdogan warned the West last week that it needed to take a much stronger stance against an Idlib offensive.
In a newspaper opinion piece, he called for support to help him stop the assault on Idlib. “The Assad regime seeks to legitimise its imminent attack on counter-terrorism grounds,” Mr Erdogan wrote. “But Bashar Al Assad’s solution is a false one. Innocent people must not be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism.”
Just days before making his appeal to erstwhile allies, Mr Erdogan was broadcast without his knowledge decrying Russian and Iranian support for Mr Assad.
After the rebuff in Tehran Mr Erdogan had little option, said Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish policy analyst and columnist, but to issue a “cry to the West, where are you?”
In the end the Turkish leader took it upon himself to lobby Mr Putin again to change tack. If the outcome of the Sochi talks holds, American and European officials could edge further to the sidelines of Syria-focused diplomacy.
“One gets the feeling that the UK and other western governments are just waiting for it to be over and they will then pick up the pieces,” Mr de Bretton Gordon said. “What they do not seem to realise is that tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians could die in the quest to wipe out the 5,000 to 10,000 terrorists among the four million trapped in Idlib.”
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