The Implications of a Potential Idlib Operation in Northwestern Syria
The SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. hosted an event titled “The Implications of a Potential Idlib Operation in Northwestern Syria” on September 13, 2018. The event highlighted the potentially massive humanitarian consequences that could follow a full-fledged offensive by the Assad regime in the remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. The speakers included Charles Lister, Senior Fellow and Director of the Extremism and Counterterrorism Program at the Middle East Institute; Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, Executive Director and Co-Founder at People Demand Change; Nicholas Heras, Fellow of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security; and, Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. Kilic Bugra Kanat, Research Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. moderated the event.
Charles Lister explained the situation in Idlib, hypothesizing a potential reason Assad has yet to begin an assault is due to a lack of enough men. Furthermore, discussing the reality of refugees’ ability to return, he added that Syria has 3 million refugees on the terrorist watch list, making it very difficult for them to return to Syria after the conflict ends. Lister discussed the different terrorist organizations and how countries, such as Turkey, may have to work with some for strategic purposes. However, there are ways that Turkey will have to mitigate and control their movements and actions.
Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff commented on Turkey’s extreme interest in the Idlib region, noting its involvement and links on the ground already, its concern regarding support for more refugees, and the long border shared with Syria near Idlib. He argued that there is a potential for a three angled attack on Idlib, which could take advantage of a decentralized command structure of the opposition forces. Additionally, he predicted that IDPs who are once again displaced will move to the Turkish-Syrian border.
Nicholas Heras provided options for U.S. policy if a chemical attack happened in Syria. He stated that one potential option for U.S. policy is to deter Assad from waging a campaign against Idlib, which would create a massive humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, he stated that the U.S. has relied on finding partners in the region to help with on the ground work. Heras argued that the new U.S. team focusing on Syria is looking to Idlib as the last line for the Geneva Process.
Kadir Ustun spoke on possible steps for Turkey. He contended that the actions surrounding Idlib are critical as it will determine the negotiation opportunities for a political end to the crisis. Furthermore, Turkey views the Idlib question as part of a bigger crisis: refugees and IDPs. Turkey has been hit with massive flows of immigrants from Syria and is a critical platform of domestic politics at the moment. Lastly, Ustun argued that Assad cannot take Idlib by himself, but needs the support of Iran and Russia to wage attacks in the region.