Surviving in Syria’s ‘forgotten province’
“This is going to be far more catastrophic than anything we witnessed so far” in the Syrian conflict, Mona Yaoubian, an expert on Syria at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told me. She said the large numbers of civilians and the fact that there’s nowhere for them to go makes the impending fighting a particular risk for civilians. “I think by all accounts, the regime is going to stop at nothing to take this territory back,” she said. “And so we expect a particularly brutal onslaught on the part of the Syrian regime backed by the Russians”
Andrew Tabler, who is an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute, told me it’s important to watch for how the assault proceeds: “Does it just focus on certain road arteries? Does it push beyond that? That’s where it becomes very difficult. Because you have about 3 million people living in Idlib, and you have a lot of extremists in that area as well.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that its warplanes had bombed targets belonging to al-Nusra, the former al-Qaeda affiliate that is now part of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist groups, in Idlib on Tuesday. They did not target civilian areas, the ministry said—though the Russians in the past have claimed that the civilians they killed in Syria were terrorists. Indeed, those civilian areas are likely to be discussed this Friday when the leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey will meet in Iran to, in the words of the Kremlin, “further joint efforts to ensure long-term normalization of the situation in Syria.” The U.S. is not part of this process.
The Russia airstrike came days after a back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and Russia’s foreign ministry. The American president tweeted on Sunday that Assad “must not recklessly attack Idlib Province,” warning that it would be a “grave humanitarian mistake.” Trump, whose skepticism of U.S. military involvement overseas is well-documented through his comments and tweets, has previously not shied away from using force when confronted with images of human suffering from Syria: The U.S. struck targets in the country following Assad’s use of chemical weapons in April 2017 and April 2018.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, dismissed Trump’s tweet, however: “Just to speak out with some warnings, without taking into account the very dangerous, negative potential for the whole situation in Syria, is probably not a full, comprehensive approach,” he said.
Assad and Syria maintain that they are fighting terrorists. Indeed, among the many rebel groups that operate in Idlib is HTS, the alliance that is led by the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. It is almost certain that when Russia and Assad talk about terrorists, they mean HTS, but they’ve also appended this label to any group fighting the Assad regime. Indeed, Assad and his allies have rarely discriminated between Islamists and moderate groups when unleashing the weapons of war on rebel-held areas with large civilian populations. On Tuesday, Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, told reporters that while he shared Russia’s concerns about “terrorism emanating from northern, northwest Syria … [who] need to be taken care of … We are hoping that this can be resolved diplomatically."