from Strength Through Peace and Center for Preventive Action

U.S. Retrenchment Will Intensify Crisis in Idlib

People walk by a damaged building on which illustrations of the novel coronavirus have been spray painted in Idlib, Syria, on April 18, 2020.
People walk by a damaged building on which illustrations of the novel coronavirus have been spray painted in Idlib, Syria, on April 18, 2020. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

In order to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Syria and avoid regional instability, the United States should make the outcome of the fight for Idlib a national security concern and exercise the leadership necessary for implementing diplomatic and political solutions to the civil war.

June 30, 2020

People walk by a damaged building on which illustrations of the novel coronavirus have been spray painted in Idlib, Syria, on April 18, 2020.
People walk by a damaged building on which illustrations of the novel coronavirus have been spray painted in Idlib, Syria, on April 18, 2020. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Amir Asmar is a Department of Defense analyst and CFR’s 2019-20 national intelligence fellow. Throughout his intelligence career, his primary area of focus has been the Middle East. He has held a wide range of analytic, senior analytic, and leadership positions for the Department of the Army, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Intelligence Council. The statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this blog post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense (DoD) or the U.S. government. Review of the material does not imply DoD or U.S. government endorsement of factual accuracy or opinion.

Jacob Ware is a research associate for CFR's counterterrorism and studies program.

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With Iranian and Russian support, the Bashar al-Assad regime will succeed in capturing the last opposition stronghold and “de-escalation zone” in Syria—Idlib province—unless all parties to the conflict can negotiate a solution to the civil war and prevent the upcoming battle. If a political resolution is not found, the regime will likely kill, wound, or displace hundreds of thousands of civilians as it seizes control over the rest of the province. Although the U.S. military has begun to pull back from the region, the outcome of the fight for Idlib should be a national security concern, particularly as the United States seeks to contain Iranian adventurism, Russian influence, and Turkish unilateralism in the region; combat terrorism; prevent a humanitarian disaster; and alleviate Syrian instability before it spreads. U.S. inaction could allow the Assad regime’s Idlib campaign to continue and could be viewed as a green light by malefactors searching for any sign of U.S. intent to intervene before proceeding with their plans in Idlib and for Syria more broadly. Moreover, should the battle for Idlib continue, the coronavirus pandemic will amplify the tragedy.

Rather than treating Syria as a discrete policy objective, the United States seems to have contextualized the Syrian conflict within two non-Syria military priorities that predate the civil war: combating terrorism and containing Iran. Indeed, sustained U.S. military involvement in the war occurred at only two junctures. First, Washington offered military assistance—which ultimately proved inadequate to gain the upper hand—to the opposition early in the conflict. Second, when the Islamic State invaded eastern and northern Syria some three years into the conflict, Washington funded, trained, and armed Syrian rebels, including Kurdish forces, and supported their ground battles with air strikes against the Islamic State. Beyond these two instances, U.S. air strikes targeted convoys and bases of Iran’s Shia proxies in Syria to protect U.S.-allied forces and retaliate for Iranian-sponsored attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq. However, even though the United States had begun looking for an exit before the Islamic State lost all its Syrian territory in 2019, Washington should consider leading a concerted, diplomatic effort to reach a negotiated agreement to end the war for the following reasons.

First, instead of allowing a lopsided victory for Assad and his supporters, a U.S.-led negotiation could limit Iranian, Russian, and Turkish gains and their tendency to interfere in the region. Iran, a decades-long ally of the Assads, entered the conflict early, helping the regime gain momentum by providing training, weapons, and intelligence. Tehran also arranged for Shia militias from across the region, including its strongest ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah, to support Assad’s forces. Absent an interruption in the conflict, Iran is on the verge of being more entrenched in Syria than ever before. Russia is using Assad to secure its military influence in the region, including an airbase in Latakia and a naval base in Tartus, both Syrian coastal provinces. Moscow’s intervention began in fall 2015 with airstrikes against rebel targets—and did not distinguish between Islamist terrorists and moderate oppositionists. Now, absent U.S. diplomatic intervention, Russia could remain emboldened to intrude in hot spots in the Middle East and elsewhere. Finally, although Turkey has backed opposition elements, its primary objective has been to block Syrian Kurdish territorial and political gains, and to exclude the Kurds from a safe zone along its shared border with northern Syria. Ankara carried out unilateral air and ground attacks against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, and a deconfliction agreement with Russia and Iran permitted Turkish troops to move into Idlib province, where they remain today. The current trajectory of the conflict could encourage Turkey to continue interfering in Syria and unilaterally pursue its interests outside of NATO.

Second, Idlib province remains the largest safe haven for al-Qaeda fighters since pre-9/11 Afghanistan, with several thousand fighters packed into an area smaller than Connecticut. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, an umbrella organization that includes thousands of al-Qaeda fighters led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, has long dominated the region; its fighters and allies remain capable and likely intent on striking the West. Moreover, Idlib is complicated by a fractured landscape with moderate opposition groups that seek Assad’s overthrow competing with al-Qaeda and other opportunistic extremists who have transnational ambitions. The Syrian opposition today is still led by Free Syrian Army factions, but the ongoing marbling of terrorists and insurgents, and their geographical proximity, makes targeting extremists and distinguishing between groups challenging.

Third, beyond foreign intervention and the concentration of dangerous terrorists, the intensification of the humanitarian crisis is clearly concerning. Idlib’s pre-war population of one and a half million has swelled to more than three million. Civilians in regime-conquered areas throughout Syria often fled because they faced arrest, torture, and conscription; thus, in addition to thousands of fighters and their families, hundreds of thousands of civilians relocated to Idlib. Should fighting resume, these people will find themselves trapped against a closed Turkish border. With refugee camps already full, local, unofficial facilities run by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), rather than the United Nations, have dotted up along the border; these facilities are already stretched thin as they struggle to accommodate the approximately nine hundred thousand refugees displaced by the latest fighting. Any worsening of the humanitarian conditions in Idlib could prove devastating: either a second migrant crisis results, further challenging and polarizing Washington’s European allies, or thousands more die from hunger, exposure, or bullets and bombs, with the United States looking the other way.

More on:

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Syrian Civil War

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Coronavirus

Finally, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic presents a dangerous new threat in Idlib. Years of war have decimated the region’s health care infrastructure. More than eighty hospitals are already out of action and those that remain have “extremely limited capacity to provide intensive care.” Health officials in the region have warned of as many as one hundred thousand deaths—nearly as many civilians as have already died in the entire conflict. The region’s overcrowded refugee camps are particularly under threat given the difficulty in maintaining social distancing and proper hygiene. Though the risk of outbreak may be delaying a return to hostilities, the pandemic could magnify the grave humanitarian conditions resulting from any continuation of the conflict.

Nearly twenty years into the global war on terror, exhaustion is understandably wearing on Western policymakers and publics. However, the conflict in Idlib demands a response, and the United States could take the lead on proposing a largely non-military solution. The United States could propose the following notional plan—or something similar—to end the war: Assad could remain in power, but he would have to consult with a newly-elected legislature, demand that Iran and its proxies withdraw, and permit NGOs to conduct humanitarian relief activities. Syrian refugees could be allowed to return to their home provinces, and oppositionists—those who do not belong to terrorist groups—could receive amnesty and be admitted into the political process. U.S. sanctions—including a prohibition on the delivery of oil to Syria—could remain in effect, but would be terminated if Assad implemented agreed-upon commitments. Russia could keep its bases, but would have to gradually withdraw combat troops from Syria. The Syrian Kurds could gain some autonomy in a region away from the border, and Turkey would then withdraw from Syria and refrain from further interference. Iran and Hezbollah—both of whom are resource challenged— could be warned that their continued activities in Syria would be subject to increasing Israeli and possibly U.S. strikes. And, Russia and the United States could collaborate to gradually degrade the already fractured terrorism landscape—the one area where the two powers agree—working together to kill or capture and return foreign fighters to their home countries for prosecution. This may be the only part of the initiative that cannot be conducted purely through diplomacy.

Irrespective of the terms of a proposed peace agreement, U.S. diplomatic involvement is necessary for a chance at a positive outcome. No other state can exercise the leadership needed to implement the diplomatic and political solutions necessary to avoid broadening, regional instability and the consequent need for more military involvement. An unstable Syria threatens to trigger regional volatility for another generation, opening the door for more Iranian interference and greater radicalization and terrorist activity.

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