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Syrian Crisis: Devil’s Dilemma
Gaurav Kumar
2018-10-03
Region : Middle East-North Africa,
Issue : Military Issues, Security, Terrorism,
The war in Syria is on the cusp of significant developments and has reached a stage from where it can take any turn, expectedly a more dreadful turn if the current standstill ends. The war, which began as an uprising against the authoritative and repressive Bashar al-Assad's government, slowly snowballed into a civil war giving way to geopolitical rivalry between the powerful regional and global players. The war now in its eighth year has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem while addressing the 73rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York denounced US, French and Turkish forces operating in Syria as "occupying forces" and demanded immediate withdrawal. He also mentioned that the country is ready for the voluntary return of refugees who fled during the more than seven-year conflict. Meanwhile, the US president Donald Trump has warned Assad regime of far reaching offensive in the northeastern region, if the regime backed by Russia and Iran persists with the attacks. He raised the issue of chemical and biological weapons, and casted aspersions on President Bashar al-Assad's government repeated use of such weapons against civilians during the long conflict in Syria. Trump also inveighed against Russia for its Syrian policy, saying it has “enabled” the regime’s “butchery” of civilians. He made these observations during UN Security Council meeting in the General Assembly's session. On 27 September, seven countries including the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt urged UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to urgently set up a committee on drafting a post-war constitution for Syria.
In April 2018, The US, UK and France had carried out large scale missiles strikes against what they termed as Syrian chemical weapons facilities in response to a chemical weapons attack in Damascus suburbs. Recently, France's top military official said that French forces were prepared to carry out strikes on Syrian targets if chemical weapons were used in an expected government offensive. Similar sentiments were expressed by the British Prime Minister Theresa May when she termed the strikes as legal and moral. Syria has denied use of any chemical weapons against the rebel, however the international investigations suggest otherwise.
Idlib- Last Frontier
The Syrian regime, strongly backed by Russian warplanes, and supported diplomatically and militarily by China and Iran has largely confined the rebels in the northwestern region Idlib after sweeping control of swathes of territory in Syria, through a combination of brutal offensives and evacuation deals . The city has nearly 3 million populations, and is feared to be shelter to some 35,000-40,000 rebels, including 10,000 jihadis.
On 17 September 2018, the presidents of Russia and Turkey agreed to establish a “demilitarized zone” at Idlib to avert a potentially catastrophic military confrontation. The establishment of Idlib as buffer zone halted Mr. Assad months of preparation for a final military blow against rebel fighters and their civilian supporters in Idlib. According to the agreement, the 15-20km zone running along the borders of the Idlib region will be safe from Syrian and Russian air force attack and will be in place by 15 October. Similarly, heavy weapons including tanks, mortars and artillery will be withdrawn from the zone by 10 October .
A lot now depends on how the international community reacts to the growing situation in Idlib. Russia has shown its disappointment over delay in separating opposition fighters from hardliner jihadists who belong to groups branded as terrorists by the United Nations . The Russia has recently warned that it will not allow jihadists in Syria to be sent to Afghanistan or elsewhere and hence rebels should be either eliminated or a judicial process should begin against them. Meanwhile the role of the jihadi groups is very crucial in averting the catastrophic military confrontation in the region. Syrian rebel are confident that their jihadist rivals will comply with the requirement to leave the buffer zone. The alliance of Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel groups expects no hurdles in implementation from all the revolutionary forces. The position of the biggest jihadist group, Tahrir al-Sham, spearheaded by al Qaeda’s former Syrian offshoot, will be crucial to the deal’s success, but it has so far said nothing . A formerly US-backed Syrian rebel group Jaysh al-Izza faction has rejected the ceasefire deal between Russia, even when Pro-Turkey rebels have cautiously accepted the deal .
Both Turkey and Russia appears to avoid military confrontation in the region; however non-execution of the agreement would be the final straw that might break the camel’s back. The crisis in Idlib is also a crisis of overarching rivalry between the US and Russia, which is keen to challenge the geopolitical hegemony of the US in west Asia. This is something that forced the Trump administration to change its Syria policy, where Trump had initially shown less willingness to get stuck in the Syrian crisis. "The crisis in Idlib is a devil's dilemma for the Trump administration," says Middle East military analyst Nicholas Heras, "and how it responds will determine the success or failure of a new Syria policy ." The Russia on the other hand has found formidable partner in Iran and China to challenge the US power, and Syria could be the litmus test for its capability to forge a grand alliance against the US and its allies in the region. Turkey which has put a lot at stack in the Syrian war would not want any control by the Syrian government over the Idlib which will eventually end its relevance in Syria, apart from refugee influx. Above all, amidst growing friction between the global powers, at stake is the precious life of the Syrian civilians which has bore the brunt of war for nearly eight years the current standstill has brought some relief for the Syrian population, but the execution of the agreement will require pragmatic coordination between the groups and the international community involved.

References
"Trump Claims Credit for Halting Assad Regime's Attack on Syria's Idlib, after Learning about Province from a Rally." The Independent. September 27, 2018. Accessed September 28, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/trump-syria-idlib-attack-assad-regime-us-rally-province-rebels-civil-war-a8557991.html
Wintour, Patrick. "Russia and Turkey to Set up Idlib Buffer Zone to Protect Civilians." The Guardian. September 17, 2018. Accessed September 29, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/17/russia-and-turkey-to-set-up-idlib-buffer-zone-to-protect-civilians
"Russia Vows No Safe Passage for Syria Jihadists in Idlib - World News." Hürriyet Daily News. Accessed September 29, 2018 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/russia-vows-no-safe-passage-for-syria-jihadists-in-idlib-137358

Al-Khalidi, Suleiman. "Syria Rebels Think Jihadists Will Quit Idlib Buffer Zone." Reuters. September 27, 2018. Accessed September 28, 2018.https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-idlib/syria-rebels-think-jihadists-will-quit-idlib-buffer-zone-idUSKCN1M702J
"Syria Rebel Faction Rejects Idlib Deal." France 24. September 29, 2018. Accessed September 29, 2018. https://www.france24.com/en/20180929-syria-rebel-faction-rejects-idlib-deal
Usher, Barbara Plett. "Syria War: How Idlib May Be Changing Trump's Strategy." BBC News. September 07, 2018. Accessed September 29, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-45444088

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