Let’s put it bluntly. The Baath regime, and its military arm, the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, are not preparing for a fight to clear Idlib from armed non-state actors, including terrorist organizations. This objective if there is such an objective in the first place, remains secondary to the primary goal of forcing the Sunni inhabitants out and depopulating the province.
This notorious depopulation concept stems from the regime’s operational and strategic calculus.
At the operational level, the regime strives to compensate for its personnel shortcomings. Statistical studies in military sciences show that stability operations in low-intensity conflict environments necessitate, as a minimum requirement, 20 troops per 1,000 inhabitants. Thus, the Syrian Arab Army would need some 60,000 personnel to decisively control Idlib. The Baath regime simply cannot afford to allocate such a big military unit. Although Assad’s manpower is some 100,000-strong on paper, in reality, the regime has an estimated number of only 20,000 elite and reliable troops for major offensives. Besides, they cannot station the bulk of the elite formations hundreds of kilometers away from the capital and other key hubs for extended periods of time. In fact, this is why Assad still needs Tehran’s Quds Forces, a Shiite militia harbored by Iran, as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah, which altogether accounts for an extra 30,000-strong fighting power.
At the strategic level, the regime has a more insidious plan. As hinted by some top Syrian generals, including the head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence General Jamil Hassan, the ruling clan of the country opts for turning all the displaced persons into permanent refugees to change the demographic makeup of the country.
In the United Nations parlance, such an operational concept falls under crimes against humanity. This is what is happening right now in Syria.
Problematic military leadership
Open-source pieces of intelligence suggest that the Syrian Arab Army has been concentrating its battle-hardened, elite formations for a robust offensive in Idlib and adjacent provinces. These praetorian units, such as the Republican Guard, the Tiger Forces, and the 4th Armored Division, are organized in a sectarian fashion in compliance with the Baath regime’s foundations.
Many of the principal unit commanders, General Suheil Hassan, General Talal Makhlouf, General Aous Aslan, and General Maher al-Assad, to name a few, have notorious records of committing systematic crimes ranging from indiscriminate use of force to barrel bombings and employment of chemical weapons. Such a problematic military leadership would pose significant risks to the Syrian people and to the region.
In addition, the Syrian Arab Army advances with various paramilitary groups backing it. These thuggish auxiliaries cannot be fully controlled by strict rules of engagement like a regular unit. In many corners of Syria, what these sectarian paramilitaries have been doing is best termed as ethno-sectarian cleansing, and definitely not as military operations.
All in all, the underlying reason for the problem of Syrian refugees pouring into Europe is, in essence, the Syrian Arab Armed Forces’ violent campaigns. Idlib is just a revealing example of them. Unless the Baath regime’s intention of forcibly building a country with more favorable demographics is prevented, Syrian refugees will never be able to return to their homes.
Ghosts of the past
The current situation in Idlib is a residue of the past, and also a determinant of the future.
In fact, when the Trump administration assumed the office, they found an already undermined, mismanaged Syrian portfolio. President Trump’s predecessor, President Obama, built his foreign and security strategy to reverse the Bush presidency’s legacy. To do so, the Obama administration opted for undoing the neo-con republican policies in key security issues. The year 2013 marked a historic milestone in this respect, a milestone that may have led to the collapse of a very necessary international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. That year, the Syrian Arab Army perpetrated the Ghouta chemical attacks, claiming the lives of more than 1,500 people. As a result, President Obama had his plate full with yet another Baath regime, a weapons of mass destruction case, and prospects of military intervention in the Middle East. Instead of asking ‘what should we do now’ -- not only for saving the Syrian people but also the global norms of armed conflict -- it seems that the Obama administration asked themselves what the Bush presidency would do, and opted for the opposite.
Resembling Isaac Asimov’s famous 1980 op-ed, “A Cult of Ignorance”, Washington, back in 2013, witnessed a cult of idealist optimism (some might prefer ‘naive’ or ‘unrealistic’ to depict it) along with an obsession -- not preference -- of promoting non-military choices in hard security affairs regardless of the circumstances.
In 2012, before the 2013 Ghouta attacks, Jihad Makdissi, the then spokesperson of the Syrian Foreign Office, underlined that the regime would not use chemical or biological weapons against its people. In fact, this statement marked the first clear confession highlighting the presence of a non-nuclear WMD arsenal at Damascus’ disposal. Notably, at the outset of the civil war, President Obama had drawn a red line regarding the use of these terror weapons. Once that red line was breached with impunity, the U.S. military was preparing for action. Yet, the Russian brokering saved Assad by talking Washington into halting the military buildup in return for Syria’s chemical disarmament.
At that critical point, some experts warned the U.S. administration about the serious drawbacks that such a ‘soft and naive’ approach could bring about. However, in those euphoric days, nearly all international scholarly events were dominated by a ‘liberal oppression’, showing the textbook example of oxymoron. Clearly, the case of (not) punishing the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons demonstrated that undoing the Bush legacy was not a foreign policy choice anymore, but an obsession that was causing analytical pathologies. Tellingly, before President Obama left the office, the U.S. intelligence community had already concluded that the regime had indeed breached the disarmament plan.
Subsequently, the 2017 Khan Sheikun chemical attack forced the incumbent U.S. administration to take military action with its international allies. It was too little, too late… In other words, the 2013 moment not only failed to disarm Syria’s WMD arsenal, but also showed the regime that it could get away with such crimes.
Amidst escalatory risks, Turkey retains capabilities to respond
Returning back to the current, troublesome case of Idlib, it should be underlined that opening Pandora’s box could mean more than exacerbating a humanitarian catastrophe.
Turkey, shielding Europe and already hosting nearly four million refugees for years, cannot tolerate another mass wave. If left unchecked, the Baath regime’s relentless aggression in Idlib could cause a regional conflict. In this respect, two critical developments could trigger a robust response from Turkey.
Firstly, there is the risk of chemical weapons contamination. In the event the regime opts for depopulating and capturing Idlib without totally destroying the infrastructure, it can employ, once again, its chemical arsenal. Assad’s military planners could also consider using chemical weapons to compensate for their shortcomings in manpower. Depending on the weather conditions and the chemical warfare agent of choice, the Turkish territory, or Turkey’s forward-deployed military formations, might be affected by a contamination in Idlib. Throughout the civil war, Syria’s several conventional weapons, such as ballistic missiles and air defense missiles, hit Turkey several times. However, using WMDs at Turkey’s immediate doorstep would cross a very dangerous threshold. Such a dangerous move would force Ankara to respond massively, probably by hitting the Baath regime’s strategic assets or directly targeting the operational command of the Idlib campaign.
Secondly, Turkey’s forward-deployed military units in Idlib could be exposed to provocations. At present, 12 Turkish outposts surround the Idlib province in the southwest–northeast axis in compliance with the Astana de-escalation framework. The Syrian Arab Air Force’s indiscriminate bombardments by using unguided munitions (predominantly improvised barrel bombs) could lead to Turkish casualties. Likewise, the observation posts could also be attacked by the rogue paramilitaries advancing with the Syrian Arab Army. In either scenario, the Turkish administration would respond militarily. In fact, at the time of writing, the Turkish Armed Forces already reinforced these outposts, as well as the border formations, with heavy armor and artillery.
More importantly, if the de-escalation observation posts should be targeted by the Baath regime, this would mark the dead-end for the Astana talks along with the Russian political efforts in Syria.
Yet another 2013 moment seems ahead
At present, we are witnessing yet another 2013 moment in Syria. The Syrian Arab Armed Forces is on the eve of changing Syria’s demographic makeup if it is allowed to proceed with its plans unchecked. The resulting refugee wave would spur hundreds of thousands toward Turkey, which could then function as a vector for the terrorist cells in the area.
The international community will either watch or take action and do something about it. Something that can stop the Baath war machine. Something that will protect the people of Syria from a sectarian, a Cold-War-remnant kind of regime; more importantly, something to protect the humanity’s gains in limiting armed conflicts with legal and humanitarian norms.
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