The fate of roughly 3 million civilians hangs in the balance as leaders from Iran, Turkey, and Syria prepare to meet in Tehran on Friday to decide how to proceed with the impending offensive on the Syrian province of Idlib, thought to be the final opposition stronghold in the country.
Russia and Iran have been instrumental in helping swing the pendulum in the favor of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, helping recapture key territories through enormous bloodshed over the last year of the seven-and-a-half year war there.
The population in the province and surrounding area also conceals some 10,000 fighters, some of them linked to al-Qaeda — and that makes any kind of military operation that won’t cost potentially thousands of civilian lives almost impossible, even if that was the goal.
When asked how Iran, Russia, and Syria could possibly kill, capture, or defeat the opposition in Idlib without mass civilian casualities, Hayat Alvi, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told ThinkProgress, “They cannot, and it’s not their concern.”
“They — Assad regime, Russia, and Iran — have a scorched earth tactic, because they don’t abide by rules of engagement,” she added.
If anything, the fighters/militants will contribute to these casualties by “integrating among civilians to avoid capture and being targeted,” said Alvi, whose views do not reflect those of the U.S. War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.
The government forces and their allies will target more people as a result of this, which, said Alvi, makes them “the culprits [that] can be condemned for the atrocities.”
At the same time, for Iran and Russia, which plan on remaining active in Syria’s redevelopment in years to come, such bloodshed would jeopardize the normalization and stability they need to keep their respective footholds.
Turkey, which has been active in bombing Kurdish positions near its border and is currently home to some 3.5 million Syrian refugees, also has a stake in peace returning to Syria and certainly in preventing the flight of hundreds of thousands more — including some militants — to its borders.
Fearing the worst, hundreds of Syrians have already moved to the Turkish border in northern Idlib in recent days.
Friday will mark the third such meeting between these three countries in the past year, with two prior meetings being in Sochi, Russia, and Ankara, Turkey. Neither of the previous two sessions produced anything meaningful in terms of ceasefires that would hold.
The United States does not appear to be much of a factor in the fate of Idlib. President Donald Trump fired off a tweet on Monday warning Russia not to “recklessly” attack Idlib:
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2018
A few hours later, Russia bombed Idlib and surrounding areas, continuing with business as usual.
The White House then followed up on Tuesday with a statement reiterating the president’s point, adding a new warning on the use of chemical weapons:
Let us be clear, 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.
“I do not think that the U.S. can do anything substantial to mitigate civilian deaths,” said Alvi. “The Trump administration has already warned against use of chemical weapons, but no one is going to do anything to save civilians from the onslaught.”
So far, the administration’s concerns over an escalated crisis have not reversed its earlier decision to cut development funding to Syria or to provide temporary humanitarian visas to Syrians, who remain on the president’s Muslim travel ban list.
Beyond any kind of power play by the presidents Hassan Rouhani, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, are the lives of those trapped among the fighters.
Human rights and humanitarian advocates are pleading for the three leaders to come up with a solution that does not involve mass bloodshed.
“The shocking civilian death tolls and war crimes witnessed recently in other parts of Syria such as eastern Aleppo city, Eastern Ghouta, and Daraa must not be repeated in Idlib,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, in a statement.
“It is essential that all parties to the conflict do not attack civilians, grant safe passage to civilians wishing to flee the fighting and attacks, and ensure unimpeded access to humanitarian relief for all civilians in need in Idlib,” she added.
Of those currently in and around Idlib, hundreds of thousands (1.5 million by some estimates) have already been displaced at least once within the country from other areas — such as Homs, Daraa, and Aleppo — ravaged by heavy fighting. And many of them are children.
“There are indeed many more babies than there are terrorists in Idlib. There are a million children,” said Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.’s Syria envoy.
The Associated Press reported that Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.’s Syria envoy, directly appealed to the leaders meeting on Friday to find a “soft solution to this crisis. We look to Russia, Turkey, Iran to come with hope to the civilians in Idlib,” he said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Wednesday told his country’s press agencies that while Idlib is terrorist territory, Russia “is acting cautiously, selectively and is trying to minimize possible risks for civilians.”