How to prevent a massacre and the creation of ISIS 2.0 in Syria’s Idlib province

Smoke rises from an emergency service point after an airstrike at the rebel-held village of Maar Zita in Idlib province, Syria April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah - RC11F2F53AF0
Editor's note:

No viable strategy towards Syria can require a huge new investment in U.S. troops, lives, or treasure, write Michael O’Hanlon and Steven Heydemann; the American public will not tolerate it. But with the right modification of previous policy, updated to reflect current circumstances, it might not be too late to partially salvage what is left of Syria. This piece originally appeared in USA Today.

As Syrian forces and Russian warplanes take early steps for a long-awaited offensive against the northwest Syrian province of Idlib, where more than 2 million civilians live amongst several tens of thousands of opposition fighters, catastrophe looms. 

President Donald Trump, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford have all warned Moscow and Damascus not to employ their usual type of indiscriminate, brutal attacks against this last remaining major enclave of the Syrian opposition (myriad militias, including the Islamic  State of Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda-related elements as well as more moderate factions).

But why would President Bashar Assad or President Vladimir Putin listen to such pleas?  They know America is interested first and foremost in staying out of the Syrian war as much as possible—a common priority of both President Barack Obama and President Trump. An offensive against Idlib will unquestionably lead to a massive humanitarian catastrophe. Yet appeals based on morality and decency will probably ring hollow with Assad and Putin, both of whom believe that the United States has handled this war atrociously—supporting rebels just enough to egg them on, without providing them the means to win.

At least Damascus and Moscow have been effective in their brutality, so the reasoning would continue, and as a result are now poised to win the war once Idlib is brought under control.

Nothing justifies killing civilians 

In reality, of course, Assad and Putin are wrong. Nothing can justify the carpet bombing, barrel bombing or use of conventional artillery and chemical weapons against civilian neighborhoods that has been the standard recourse of the Syrian military and its Russian and Iranian allies throughout this terrible conflict—the worst of the century anywhere on Earth.

Moreover, the regime’s victory will leave it in control of a country broken by violence, a traumatized population and a devastated economy crippled by sanctions. The Sunni parts of Syria are so devastated, in terms of human lives and property, that it is hard to see how the reemergence of new extremist elements can be prevented in the future.

ISIS might have lost most of its territorial holdings for now, but ISIS 2.0 or something worse lurks just around the corner.

We need an overall framework for preventing a massacre in Idlib and ending the war in Syria, not appeals to the better angels of Putin’s or Assad’s nature. The right plan would also help bring home refugees and assist communities in the areas where U.S. and allied forces are present to build better political futures for themselves.

It is on this last point where the interests of Damascus, Moscow and Washington might converge. Of course, no viable strategy can require a huge new investment in U.S. troops, lives or treasure; the American public will not tolerate it. But with the right modification of previous policy, updated to reflect the circumstances of late 2018, it might not be too late to partially salvage what is left of Syria. 

America can stop these civilian deaths

The key elements of such a comprehensive plan should be as follows:

  • Recognize that the U.N.-sponsored Geneva diplomatic process will not replace Assad with an elected government or a truly representative government of national unity. To continue to pretend otherwise is fantasy.
  • Adopt the longer-term  goal that the Syrian government choose Assad’s successor, subject to approval by the international community, with a Cabinet of advisers and ministers that would include individuals from the country’s other major regions, sectarian groups and political affiliations. Assad remains unlikely to accept such a compromise soon, but it could be the best we can hope for, and it is consistent with statements from Russian and Iranian leaders about the need for post-conflict reforms in Syria’s government.
  • Combined with such flexibility on the political front, be more stern towards Assad on the military front. Specifically, we should pledge to retaliate at a time and in a manner of our choosing, against regime assets used in indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
  • Offer to work with Turkey, and possibly even Russia, in counterterrorism operations within Idlib, to root out over time ISIS and al-Qaeda-related elements.
  • Work with autonomous actors in the country’s Kurdish northeast and, over time, in Idlib if possible to help with the recovery process—by empowering them through stabilization and reconstruction efforts to define the terms of their eventual reintegration into a unified, decentralized, Syrian state.
  • Except for very limited humanitarian aid, do not provide international assistance to the central government or any regions Assad still rules, until he steps down in the manner indicated above.
  • In the course of the above, keep American forces on the ground in roughly their current numbers, to help with reconstruction and to ensure the autonomous areas stay secure.
  • Be willing to employ American and allied air power to retaliate against any regime or Iranian attacks on U.S. or friendly positions.

Negotiating this deal could save millions of lives

We cannot be sure that Russia would agree to such a deal. If it did, we cannot be confident it has the political capital to assist in carrying it out. But Russia does have incentives to end this war, too, and to get international help for the eventual reconstruction of Syria.

This type of pragmatic plan for Syria would protect our friends and allies while allowing reconstruction to begin and refugees and internally displaced persons within Syria to return to areas of U.S. operations, reducing the odds of a future resurgence of ISIS.

And it is certainly better than trusting Russia to evict Iran from Syria, an earlier U.S. hope, or trusting Assad to show mercy to his own people in Idlib and beyond.

The emergence of an ISIS 2.0 or similar extremist movement  could easily be the result of a precipitous American departure. And a huge humanitarian disaster, with major spillover costs for U.S. allies, could loom if we simply allow the devastation of Idlib to go forward with no more than verbal exhortations to brutal thugs to somehow show restraint when they have not done so before.