The Crisis in Idlib – Emphasizing the Need for a Pro-Active Policy Towards Syria
The growing military and humanitarian crisis near Idlib in northern Syria does not itself fundamentally endanger the West. But what happens in Syria has consequences that reverberate beyond its borders. The West’s current containment strategy might not suffice to address related challenges that are being exacerbated by the Idlib crisis – the migration of refugees to Europe, the lack of a coherent policy towards Turkey, and Russian and Iranian dominance, which, among other things, creates humanitarian crises.
At the end of February, fighting broke out between the Syrian military, supported by Russia, Iranian militias and Hezbollah, on the one hand, and the Turkish military, supporting the Syrian rebels, on the other hand. The clashes were described as a “Syrian-style chess game.”
Tensions between Turkey and Russia have grown since the fighting started. The U.S offered support for its NATO ally, Turkey. NATO conducted an emergency meeting, expressed “full solidarity” with Turkey, as did the U.K, and discussed the crisis with Turkey and the U.S. But neither the U.S nor NATO have offered military assistance. Nor are they likely to, since they probably want to avoid directly aiding the Turkish-supported rebels, some of whom are aligned with an Al-Qaeda offshoot.
At the beginning of March, a ceasefire was reached between Moscow and Ankara. Since then, the buzz over Idlib has cooled down. But the foundational problems related to Syria will not disappear.
One of NATO's challenges regarding Turkey is Ankara's purchase of advanced S-400 air defense systems from Russia. Ankara needs its cooperation with Moscow, which will endure after this “Idlib test.” It also hosts terrorist organizations' personnel and has a bad record on human rights, tendencies the Idlib ceasefire will not change.
The problem of Syrian refugees will also persist. The international community is aware of the humanitarian catastrophe, but Turkey has blamed the EU for not providing a viable solution. With no such solution in sight, the burden cannot continue to fall on Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan.
The same goes for Iranian and Russian influence. Moscow and Tehran seek not only to influence Syria after the civil war but also to exploit the war itself. They do not seem deterred from enhancing their support for Assad, perhaps due to sustained American weakness. They are the dominant actors shaping the nature of Syria, and they use Syrian territory and infrastructures for their needs.
Finally, the U.S will probably have to continue coping with an Al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria. The Russian-Turkish ceasefire did not solve this problem.
The West does not seem to have a pro-active strategy towards Syria, although U.S policy seems rather coherent. The Obama and Trump administrations occasionally addressed weapons of mass destruction, and the U.S has constantly said that “Assad must go.” However, in practical terms, the policy was inclined towards containment, mainly of terrorism. The Trump administration is even trying to minimize the forces needed for this mission.
This does not mean the West is losing in Syria. Iran and Russia are far from achieving their goals, and their interests in Syria sometimes diverge. The Syrian crisis doesn't dramatically endanger core Western values or interests.
But in order to deal with the persistent challenges that emanate from Syria – Salafi-Jihadi terrorism, migration of refugees, humanitarian catastrophes, Turkish defiance, Russian dominance, Iranian entrenchment, Hezbollah presence, and heightening risk for military escalation – Western nations must address the core Syrian problem: Russian and Iranian influence. Containment might not suffice to deal with Syria’s “hybrid sovereignty.”
The West should view Syria as a minor manifestation of “great power competition.” A realistic carrot and stick approach is needed to limit Moscow and Tehran’s sway over Damascus, although a recent analysis claims that "allowing" Russia to invest resources in Syria is a competitive strategy the West can adopt.
Economic sanctions – such as limiting petroleum shipments to Syria – are important. U.S political and diplomatic support for the Israeli campaign against Iran’s regional entrenchment is more important than ever. Limiting Russian military presence, which challenges Western freedom of action, should also be considered.
At the same time, the West should already consider contributing financially to Syrian reconstruction, while pressuring Syria to become more accountable. Threats of harsher American financial and even military measures, if Syria continues to allow Iran and Russia full use of its territory and infrastructures (such as airfields, ports, and oil) will appear credible – especially after the killing of Qassem Soleimani. Syria is incapable of fully rejecting Russia or Iran, but it might be compelled to marginally limit their influence.
Western actions in Syria must be realistic. This means accepting that Assad will not leave soon, and Syria will not become democratic, Western-leaning, or Iranian-free. But it is possible to diminish the humanitarian and security challenges emanating from Syria, mainly by minimizing Russian and Iranian influence. In the volatile Middle East, when the U.S global perspective remains more focused on China and Russia, this might be good enough.
IDF Col. (ret.) Itai Shapira is former Deputy Head of the Research and Analysis Division (RAD) in the Israel Defense Forces and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).