Standoff over Syria’s Idlib province
POLITICAL FUTURES - Ian Bremmer (The Philippine Star) - October 17, 2018 - 12:00am

For the moment, Syria’s final remaining rebel stronghold remains quiet. Turkey’s government has brokered a deal that delays the day of judgment when Bashar al-Assad’s army, backed by Russia, will attack Idlib province to kill the last of its holdouts. That respite is good news for the 2.9 million men, women, and children trapped in harm’s way, but there is no guarantee this truce will last. That will depend on whether various rebel groups, which together comprise tens of thousands of fighters cornered in Idlib, will lay down their weapons or fight to the bitter end.

If and when the Syrian government’s assault on Idlib begins, it will be the last major battle of Syria’s seven-year civil war. Full-scale reconstruction can begin when the fighting comes to an end, but this conflict has already killed or displaced half the people who lived in that country in 2011, and it has inflicted irreversible psychological damage on those who have fled and many who remain.

Syria’s President Assad wants to avoid a bloodbath if he can. Accusations that he has used chemical weapons banned on international law, including against Syrian civilians, has already inflicted lasting damage on his credibility. But he also wants to begin to reconsolidate control of his country, and there is real cause for concern that his patience with rebels has clear limits. 

He’s far from the only interested party here. This conflict has opened Syria to a wide range of outside actors and observers who fear its repercussions for their own interests. To understand this war and the country’s future, it’s important to see it from multiple points of view.

Iran is Assad’s main regional ally. Its government, leading a country surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors and under sustained economic pressure from Donald Trump, needs Assad firmly in charge. Iran wants to see the Islamist groups, rebel militias and other Assad enemies crushed, but its leaders also fear their influence in Syria’s future will be undermined by Assad’s other reliable ally, Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants very much to expand his country’s influence in the Middle East as a way of enhancing Russian prestige on the world stage and guaranteeing his navy continued access to the Mediterranean. But he’s also conscious of damage that a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib would do to his interests. He wants to avoid a bloody battle would further alienate Europe and make it more difficult to raise funds to rebuild Syria, but like Assad and Iran, he’s ready to declare victory and end this war.

No one outside Syria is more determined than Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to avoid an all-out final battle in Idlib. Turkey already houses some 3.5 million Syrians in makeshift camps, a solution that is not sustainable. A full-on Syrian government assault on Idlib would send another tidal wave of desperate civilians scrambling toward the nearby Turkish border. Turkey’s economy has enough problems without another surge of refugees purging across its borders.

European leaders are watching closely, as well, especially those who lead countries that are housing significant numbers of migrants from Syria. Whatever their opinions of Assad’s savagery, they know that the reconstruction of Syria cannot begin until Syria’s strongmen reestablishes firm control of the country—and that those Syrians in Europe who might return home won’t move until it’s safe to enter.

The Trump administration will be watching to see that Assad doesn’t again use chemical weapons. There are credible warnings from Washington that crossing this line will again bring retribution on Assad’s army, this time with greater force.

Finally, the other interested party consists of United Nations and other relief agencies that want to help the civilians trapped inside Idlib. They’re hoping for an evacuation corridor that will allow as many of these people as possible to move toward safer areas before any fighting begins.

These are the stakes as the standoff over Idlib continues.

(Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.)

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