UN, US, int’l community should do more to de-escalate in Idlib

UN, US, int’l community should do more to de-escalate in Idlib

The situation in the Idlib province of Syria is getting much more worrying as the Syrian regime deliberately attacks the Turkish deployment in the enclave. The latest offensive killed five troops and wounded another five on Feb. 10, just days after the first incident that claimed the lives of seven soldiers and one civilian.

The continued aggression by the Syrian army has almost collapsed the Turkish-Russian mechanism for the de-escalation in Idlib as the high-level dialogue between the two capitals failed to calm the situation in the province.

Even worse, the Syrian army attacked and killed five Turkish troops at a time when senior officials from Turkey and Russia were in talks in Ankara to find a way out to stop the hostilities and normalize the situation. Turkey said it hit multiple Syrian military positions in retaliation.

In a statement last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the Syrian attack against the Turkish army as a start of a new era in Syria and vowed to act militarily if the regime forces do not withdraw from the de-escalation zone until the end of February. The next two weeks will be crucial to follow in that regard.

As diplomacy with Russia did not work, Ankara started to mull new military measures against the Syrian regime. The recent Turkish deployment in Idlib had two purposes: to strengthen its 12 observation posts, particularly those surrounded by the regime forces in the southern parts of the province, and to establish a strategic line through temporary checkpoints and positions to stop the regime advance.

The first attack by the regime was against a Turkish convoy near Saraqib, a strategic city where the M4 and M5 highways meet, and was aiming to prevent the establishment of a checkpoint on the highway. The second attack targeted the Turkish deployment at Taftanaz Airport where it was trying to take a temporary position.

As seen, these moves have not created the desired deterrence on the Syrian side. The big picture tells that Russians and Iranians will not stop backing the regime and will provide all the military means in its advance towards the Turkish borders. The continuation of the attacks by the Syrian regime is just a result of this massive and ultimate support from Moscow and Tehran.

That’s why there are those in Ankara who suggest that Turkey should launch a more comprehensive offensive into Idlib and draw a new defense line by relocating its observation posts and, thus, creating a safe zone. It seems this proposal has not gained the Russian approval, which sees that the current situation will eventually force Turkey to withdraw the observation posts. The Russians are just playing to gain more time so that the regime forces reach its military goals in the field, Ankara believes. Another question arises from the fact that Turkey cannot use the Syrian airspace and a lack of air power would make the situation much more difficult for the troops on the ground.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he will announce on Wednesday a detailed plan on how to handle the situation in Idlib and Turkey’s next steps, which will likely come after a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The current situation in Idlib poses a threat to the civilians in the enclave and to the security of Turkey and beyond. Further escalation will only lead to more displaced persons and it could spark a new refugee influx towards Europe and elsewhere via Turkey.

That’s why the international community must take immediate steps to support Turkey by increasing pressure on Russia and Syria. The U.N. must be more vocal and prominent countries should cooperate with Turkey.

A visit by James Jeffrey, the United States’ State Department’s special representative for Syria, to Ankara on Feb. 12 is important to that end. At a briefing in Washington last week, Jeffrey suggested that Russians have decided “to press forward for a military victory” as they have seen that Moscow “cannot bring the regime to do the necessary things to bring it in line with the international community’s expectations and needs.”

Talks with Jeffrey should bring about a joint understanding of how to stop Assad’s attacks against the Turkish troops and the civilians. Sanctioning Damascus would be an option, but the situation necessitates immediate and more effective actions.

Not only the U.S., but the Europeans should also do more than issuing written statements on Idlib. They should not only focus on the migration aspect of the crisis but also on ways to stop Damascus’ aggression. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s call on Syria and Russia to stop the attacks was a timely and useful statement.

Nobody wants a start of a war between Turkey and Syria, but it can only be prevented through a joint and solid stance by all concerned parties. Turkey should not be left alone against the Syrian attacks and growing humanitarian tragedy on its borders.