Civilians in Idlib must be protected from Assad's wrath

THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Published

As the simmering tension in Idlib, Syria is slowly transforming into an open conflict, the most important issue that is dominating everyone's mind is the fate of the civilians stuck there. Turkey, Russia, the U.S., Iran, the EU and others are in a discussion with each other about ways to protect the innocent.

No matter what its representatives are saying now, the war crimes committed by the Assad regime in Darayya, Aleppo, Hama, Ghouta and countless other localities across the country in the past eight years demonstrate its bloodthirstiness and what awaits anyone who stays in Idlib. For weeks, warnings have been issued about the impending tragedy.

There are three factors that need to be taken into account for Idlib. First is the future of the armed groups deployed across the province. Second is how to protect the civilians once the regime offensive begins. And the last is how to tackle any such tragedy that will most probably result in a new exodus of millions of refugees toward Turkey, and from there to Europe. In the past few weeks, the U.N. has issued several warnings about the humanitarian nightmare that will most certainly happen once the bombings begin.

There is already a trickle of a few hundred refugees fleeing toward Turkey in fear of the looming calamity. Once the regime begins its offensive, the world will once again do nothing and wait until the dust settles; the exact same thing that has happened for the past seven years.

The powers outside the region that have intervened in the Syrian civil war until now have picked sides rather than pushing for peace. Most of them tried to manipulate facts on the ground to their advantage. International peace efforts like the Geneva, Astana and Sochi processes aiming to end the bloodshed, unfortunately, came too late.

The main priority of the tripartite summit between the heads of state of Turkey, Russia and Iran in Tehran today is to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Idlib. Turkey will surely raise its concerns over the continued activities of the terrorist PKK's Syrian wing – the People's Protection Units (YPG).

The Astana process between Turkey, Russia and Iran, since 2017, had succeeded in establishing a cease-fire, with officials agreeing on a de-escalation zone in parts of Latakia and Hama, and in Idlib. All three were to establish observation posts to monitor the cease-fire. Turkey, as part of this agreement, established 12 cease-fire observation posts around Idlib.

However Assad, ignoring the deal, has been deploying increasing numbers of men and arms on the border of Idlib. In response, Turkey has issued a call for the preservation of the cease-fire and the protection of the at least 3 million civilians there.

Assad is using groups linked to al-Qaida as an excuse to attack all opposition groups. Most of the armed groups in Idlib were moved there from Aleppo, Homs, Eastern Ghouta and other towns throughout the south with the help of the regime, which opened corridors to allow their transfer. Among these groups, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), is known for its hate and threats against Turkey, which included the group in its list of terrorist groups last week. The presence of such terrorist groups that are not among the legitimate Syrian opposition pose a clear and present danger to Turkey. However, the urban structure of Idlib makes it almost impossible to distinguish between armed terrorists and civilians. Hence, measures to tackle radical terrorist groups necessitate strategic planning. The security of millions of civilians who fled to Idlib needs to be of paramount importance. After all that's been said and done, no one should be under the illusion that anyone in Idlib trusts the regime. Despite the regime's pledge not to harm the civilians of Idlib, no one should forget that 6.5 million Syrians remain refugees outside their country, with as many living as internally displaced refugees across Syria. Several hundred thousand people have died. Any expectation that the rights of the unarmed will be respected in this civil war has long been discarded.

The U.N. Security Council will also meet today, but considering the abject moral failure of the U.N. in Syria, most eyes will be on what is happening in Tehran.

Turkey, Russia and Iran need to broaden and strengthen the de-escalation zones. All sides need to find ways to fight terrorist groups without risking the safety of civilians and violating these zones. A rational road map for peace in Syria is needed, and this necessitates Turkey, Russia and Iran take the initiative, because a new refugee flood will be ruinous for the entire region. No wonder the Europeans seem the most worried about a regime assault on Idlib. At a time when Europe is facing a moral and political crisis of incredible dimensions with the coming of Syrian refugees, a new flood may result in the collapse of the EU as we know it.

In attacking Idlib, only the regime has nothing to lose. Everyone else needs to cooperate to prevent it from happening.

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