October 23, 2021, 5:33 am

A grim endgame looms in Syria

The long, cruel agony of Syria’s civil war may be approaching a decisive moment as President Bashar Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, prepare to mount a military offensive on Idlib province, the last major rebel redoubt.

Although still dependent on Russia and Iran for military and financial support, Assad, whom the West once insisted must leave power, is on the cusp of crushing the rebellion, at the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe. An estimated 3 million people, including about 1 million children, live in Idlib, which sits along Syria’s border with Turkey. There is little doubt an all-out assault will cause death, destruction and displacement rivalling the brutality seen before. Civilians have suffered so horrifically during seven years of conflict that international agencies stopped counting at 400,000 dead.

Syria, with its brew of competing foreign, domestic and terrorist fighting forces, has long defied an easy solution, and the United States has often been hampered by its confused aims, incoherent policy and limited leverage. It still is. Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, warned Thursday that an Assad regime offensive on Idlib would be a “reckless escalation” and “it is up to Russia to keep this from happening.”

A last-minute diplomatic push, including a UN Security Council meeting Friday, produced a flurry of warnings for Russia and Assad, but little else. But the major powers obviously have to try. Assad has expanded his forces around Idlib while Russia has moved 26 warships and 36 planes off the Syrian coast.

If regime forces capture Idlib, Assad will have bested the rebels and brought most of Syrian territory back under his control. The war, and the killing, have to end. The question now is how to minimise the carnage and what, if anything, can be done to patch Syria back together.

The United States and its allies can’t dictate the path of the Syrian war and shouldn’t be expected to fix all the problems Assad and Russia created. But they do have more leverage to influence events than they have used so far. Preventing an all-out assault on Idlib is the immediate goal, but helping to ensure Syria has a more stable future is also in the United States’ interest.

The leverage includes keeping in place 2,200 US troops, who have been mostly fighting the Islamic State, in eastern Syria; making clear Assad will have to change his behaviour to get control of that area’s oil and gas resources; and becoming more engaged diplomatically.

Sanctions can also be a useful tool. On Thursday, the United States raised the pressure on Syria to stay out of Idlib by imposing financial penalties on four individuals and five companies for facilitating weapons or fuel transfers for the regime.

Idlib is the last of four de-escalation zones designated in 2017 by Russia, Iran and Turkey — a main backer of the anti-Assad rebels — as havens for civilians.

But Russia, using force and negotiated surrenders, helped Assad recapture the other three zones, sending thousands of defeated rebel fighters and their families into Idlib. Some 10,000 or so are Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida.

Turkey has moved troops into northern Syria, closed its border after accepting 3.5 million refugees and established military observation posts in Idlib. As part of the de-escalation deal, Turkey was supposed to kill or disarm the hard-line militants; it sought to separate some of Idlib’s more moderate fighters from the al-Qaida-linked units.

From its opposing side in the conflict, Turkey has worked with Russia and Iran to put cease-fires in place and develop a blueprint for a political settlement. But, as the three powers met Friday in Tehran for crucial talks, President Vladimir Putin of Russia rejected a call for a new cease-fire by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Turkey reportedly was trying to head off a major Russian-Syrian assault on Idlib by proposing to disarm the militants and evacuate them to a buffer zone in the region monitored by moderate opposition forces. It’s unclear how effective that proposed solution could be, but Turkey is rightly concerned that an assault could again send refugees and militants scrambling for safety across the border.

Putin has long been Assad’s most powerful enabler, providing him critical military forces in 2015 when the rebels had him on the run.

While Islamic militants and rebels have been blamed for some war crimes in Syria, and US airstrikes on Islamic State group targets have killed many civilians, human rights observers say the pro-Assad forces have been responsible for the vast majority of the atrocities.

President Donald Trump has warned sharply against any use of chemical weapons in the anticipated assault on Idlib. Assad has dropped barrel bombs and used banned chemical weapons on civilian areas. An attack on Douma in April was particularly stomach-churning. Photos showed children foaming from their mouths and nostrils.

“Let us be clear,” a White House statement said last week. “It remains our firm stance that if President Bashar al-Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its allies will respond swiftly and appropriately.”

Trump launched airstrikes against Syrian regime targets in response to chemical weapons attacks in 2017 and in April 2018. But the action was untethered to a broader policy. There’s some chance that could improve now that James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, has been named the US representative for Syria engagement.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that Trump, who months ago said he wanted to bring US troops home, has agreed to a new strategy that indefinitely extends the military mission in Syria and launches a major diplomatic push to ensure all Iranian military and proxy forces leave Syria. It quoted Jeffrey as saying US policy no longer is “Assad must go,” as President Barack Obama’s administration long argued.

Though the details remain uncertain, the new plan suggests a deeper US involvement in Syria.

Even if the fighting ended tomorrow, Syria faces overwhelming challenges, among them a devastated economy and a Sunni majority seething over Assad’s brutality. While Putin bears significant responsibility for breaking Syria, he has neither the skills nor the resources to fix it.

He will need help from the United States and other major countries to accomplish his goals of rebuilding Syria and reintegrating it back into the world. The United States has no obligation to rebuild Syria, but it can aid recovery in areas liberated from Islamic State group fighters, while working with Russia to obtain reconstruction financing from the Gulf States and to prod Assad into a less despotic political model.

But Putin needs to know that none of that is possible if Idlib becomes a bloodbath.

© 2018 New York Times News Service

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