06.09.2018 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Battle for Idlib: Why is There a US Escalation?


Idlib, which is most probably the last stronghold of terrorists in Syria, is going to face a Syrian offensive in Damascus’ bid to re-capture territory it lost to foreign funded “rebels” several years ago. Retaking Idlib would also lead the war in Syria inches away from its final conclusion, specifically meaning a startling defeat for all external elements that sought to bring Assad down. It is, therefore, not surprising to note that these elements have already began to stir things up in Syria as part of their plan to intensify the conflict. Otherwise, why would US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contend that the battle for Idlib would lead to an escalation when, in reality, it would rid Syria of a large terrorist group, numbering at least 10,000 in Idlib? How does fighting terrorists in Syria lead to escalation if doing the same thing in Afghanistan isn’t? The answer to this lies in America’s strategy in Syria, the linchpin of which was, from the very beginning, “jihadi rebels.” Any battle, therefore, that seeks to eliminate these jihadi rebels would mean “escalation” in Washington; hence, the deliberate escalation through talks of another Syrian “chemical attack” and plans of vowed US retaliation.

While there isn’t going to be any “chemical attack” by the Syrian army, as there has never been in the past, it is obvious that the US, by attacking Syrian army targets, would only be protecting the terrorists of Al-Nusra front in Idlib. Certainly, attacking terrorists cannot in any way be escalation, but attacking a standing army, trying to rid its country of terrorists, would certainly cause escalation.

Sensing this, Russia has already announced naval drills in the Mediterranean Sea, where it says the US might strike Syria in response to a staged chemical attack by the (US supported) terrorists based in Idlib.

For the US, preventing the takeover of Idlib is necessary because it is its last hope to get back into the Syrian end-game. The objective behind creating “chemical attack” propaganda is obviously to make it as difficult as possible for Syria and Russia to achieve their objectives. As one US official was quoted in a western media report to have said, “Right now, our job is to help create quagmires [for Russia and the Syrian regime] until we get what we want.”

And the intended quagmire is to be based upon a staged chemical attack. US officials have been busy day and night telling the world of what they’ll do in response to the attack. Indeed, according to US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, even a simple attack on Idlib would automatically mean “escalation” and be responded to in the kind. To quote her, “Any Russian and/or Syrian regime offense on Idlib and any kind of escalation in that area, we would hold them responsible and we would hold them accountable for that, most especially, for the use of chemical weapons.”

That the US has problems with the planned Syrian offensive in Idlib is evident from a statement a Pentagon official gave to Newsweek saying that “We remain concerned over reports of a potential military offensive by the Syrian regime against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Idlib, which would result in devastating humanitarian consequences.”

The threat of escalation continues to come from the US despite the fact that Russia is already in talks with Turkey, the guarantor of the de-escalation zone in Idlib and partner in the Astana talks, to find ways of minimizing the human cost of the battle. And, as the discussions have shown, Russia sees no problem in separating, as Lavrov confirmed, the Turkey-backed Syrian’s opposition forces from the al-Qaeda affiliated jihadi groups. Therefore, there is no reason to speculate that the Russia-Turkey alliance in Syria wouldn’t survive the Idlib test.

With Turkey supporting Russia for the Idlib offensive, the US led mission in Syria would be left with no other means to influence the situation than by escalating it through staged stacks or even by all together opposing the operation against terrorists. This is despite the fact that Russia has already planned to allow for a civilian evacuation from Idlib, again to prevent what the UN envoy to Syrian has been calling a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Unsurprisingly, it is the foreign funded jihadi groups in Idlib that are preventing this evacuation by blowing up bridges that connect Idlib to other areas.

While Turkey has already added Al Nusra, now known as Tahrir al-Sham, to its list of terrorist organizations, indicating its willingness to support an operation against its fighters, and Russian, Iranian and Turkish leaders are also set to meet in Iran on September 7, there is every likelihood that Astana and Sochi peace process partners will be able to finalise a plan to liberate Idlib.

And, once this happens, the US would potentially lose almost all means of influencing Syria’s ground situation, or even the end-game. The whole point of escalation is therefore to prevent this from happening, and by unnecessarily escalating the scenario, the US hopes to find a way to force itself into the end-game.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.