When in 1995, the leaders of the U.S., UK, and France decided to give the Bosnian Serbs a green light to enter Srebrenica, some of them — Bill Clinton in particular — saw it as a necessary element of the endgame of the Bosnian war. All would later claim they did not expect what was to unfold after the fall of the enclave that housed some 40,000 Bosnians: Ratko Mladic’s forces proceeded to commit genocide by killing more than 8,000 men and boys who surrendered. It was the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II. As I write this, a comparable scenario is looming over Idlib, only on a much larger scale. And unlike Srebrenica, no one can claim they were not warned about what is likely to happen.
Idlib shelters more than three million people, many of whom have been displaced several times from elsewhere in Syria by the forces of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. The enclave is subject to the so-called “Sochi Agreement” between Russia and Turkey, which was supposed to create a “de-escalation zone” — language has evolved since Srebrenica — where the millions of civilians would be protected from violence. However, starting last February, Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air support and mercenaries, as well as Iranian militias and Hezbollah, launched a campaign to retake Idlib that intensified in December 2019. As a result, more than a million people have been displaced toward the border with Turkey, which is closed, blocking their entry; entire cities, such as Maaret al-Numan, Saraqeb, and Ariha, have been reduced to rubble and emptied of people; more than 1,700 civilians, many of them children, have been killed in bombardments; and people are freezing to death in makeshift camps.
All of this has been met with indifference by the world and the powers capable of reining in Assad and the Russians. Turkey has deployed troops and declared its intention to push Assad’s forces back to the Sochi lines, but they are vulnerable to Russian airpower. The United States remains on the side lines, limiting its support to a NATO ally to diplomatic statements and intelligence, while the EU has not moved beyond “strongly worded statements.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought a summit with Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, and Angela Merkel to discuss the situation, but it is unclear whether it will happen or what the outcome would be if it did.
The main reason for such deadly indifference is the flawed understanding of the situation by many Western policymakers, some of whom behind closed doors speak of the slaughter in Idlib as a “tragic but unavoidable part of the Syrian endgame.” If Assad conquers Idlib, the logic goes, a certain number of innocents will die, yes, but the conflict will be as good as over and we will finally be able to turn toward reconstruction, the return of refugees, and the normalization of Syria (and the regime). Key to this thinking is the fact that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate, is in control of part of Idlib, and therefore Assad and the Russians are given a free hand in “dealing with the terrorists.” The fact that three million people (who themselves never called for HTS to take power and have consistently demonstrated against it) are going to be collateral damage in the Russian “anti-terrorist” campaign elicits nothing more than a shrug or a cut-and-paste statement about the need to “respect international humanitarian law” by most of those with the power to act.
The consequences of such flawed thinking are going to be catastrophic, and not only for Syrians. What will likely happen if Assad and the Russians are not reined in and are instead allowed to conquer Idlib — and the more than three million people trapped there?
Idlib as the new Srebrenica
The main reason for Russia’s sudden decision to attack Idlib with such ferocity is the rapid disintegration of the Assad regime on the economic, social, and security levels. Russia realized that it cannot cement its military victories into permanent political gains through diplomacy within the projected remaining lifetime of the regime. Instead, it decided to employ the “Grozny doctrine” of complete annihilation of all those who stand in the way of its strategic goals and bring the conflict to an end before the regime collapses.
As is evident from the relentless and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas in Idlib (especially using highly inaccurate and destructive barrel bombs), beheadings of captured rebels, summary executions of civilians who did not flee, and the desecration of graveyards in towns captured by Assad and Russia’s forces, people are being dehumanized to the point where large-scale executions of military-age men are likely to take place as soon as Idlib falls.
This applies primarily to those who chose to remain under the regime’s control under some sort of a “reconciliation agreement” as we have seen after the fall of Daraa, Eastern Ghouta, or Aleppo. They would be likely be taken initially to “refugee shelters,” as was done in Homs and elsewhere with returnees from Rukban and other refugee camps. The men would be separated from women and children and arrested under the pretext of terrorism or rebelling against the regime. As was the case with tens of thousands of other Syrians arrested by Assad’s security services on the same charges, many would likely never be seen again.
Importantly, a recent poll conducted by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity indicates that less than 10 percent of the people displaced by the Russian and regime onslaught would be willing to remain under Assad’s rule. Even if we increase this number to one-third, that would still mean more than two million others would head to the border with Turkey and try to force their way across.
In the short term, this would likely result in a significant loss of life as Turkey attempts to keep the border closed. It already hosts nearly four million Syrian refugees, and it has repeatedly said it cannot take any more. In the face of the humanitarian crisis, it would ultimately have to relent and open the border, likely trying to force large numbers of refugees to the areas of Aleppo and northeastern Syria under the control of the Turkish Army. This would only exacerbate the situation in those areas, which are already facing simmering tensions with Kurdish militias and the presence of regime and Russian patrols.
Additionally, most of the displaced Syrians have indicated that their aim would be to try to reach the safety of Europe. Turkey is unlikely to stop large numbers of Syrians arriving from Idlib on their way to reach European shores. Beyond the immediate effects that a wave of at least a million Syrians streaming across the sea would have on the Greek islands — Lesbos already provides a glimpse of such a future — it is not hard to imagine the devastating impact of such a large-scale movement of refugees on European political dynamics.
These are only the short-term consequences we are likely to see in the first few months following the fall of Idlib. The medium- and long-term impact would be more devastating still.
Death of the political process and Europe in turmoil
Assad’s “victory” in Idlib would completely destroy any chance for a political solution to the conflict in Syria and a significant return of refugees. Assad is already disinterested in reaching a genuine political settlement and with this would totally dismiss the idea of making any concessions as part of the process. More importantly, who in the Syrian opposition would ever have a mandate from the Syrian people to enter into any kind of political discussion with Assad and the Russians after such a scenario? The political process as such would be dead in the water, and the displacement of Syrians would become a long-term, if not a permanent, situation.
The collapse of the political process would see the cementing of Russian and Iranian control over Syria. The U.S. economic sanctions targeting the regime and its sponsors would likely intensify, leading to the collapse of Syria’s already battered economy, increasing the hardship and despair for people in areas under Assad’s control. This would, in turn, lead to an increase in migration from these areas to Lebanon and Jordan and onwards to Europe.
The economic, political, and social turmoil in Lebanon and Turkey that would result from a new influx of Syrian refugees and migrants would provide for an explosive mix in both countries’ political dynamics. If they attempted to force the return of a large number of Syrians, they would be met by a “victorious” Assad regime, which has already demonstrated its intent to exact revenge on any returnees it sees as anti-regime through detentions, forcible recruitment, enforced disappearances, and discrimination over property and human rights. Should a forced return of large numbers of refugees to areas under Assad’s rule happen, it would inevitably lead to new cycles of violence inside Syria, as evident from the current low-intensity conflict in areas such as Daraa.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg of what might happen if Idlib is allowed to fall to Assad and the Russians. The worst and the most dangerous impact of such a blatant dereliction of responsibility to the people of Idlib, who have already suffered so much, would be the inevitable nihilism and radicalization of its children and youth.
What narratives would 1.5 million children of Idlib grow up with? How could they ever be expected to buy into the notions of justice, law, and human rights after having witnessed what they have already seen and the horrors to follow if Idlib were to fall? What prospects would they have to recover from their trauma under such circumstances? How could anyone prevent them from falling prey to the merchants of radicalism and nihilism, who would welcome them with open arms? It is the youth that must be the engine of political, social, and cultural change if Syria is ever to become a stable, peaceful country. If we lose them now, we will lose our future, and the region will lose any chance for stability for decades to come. The displacement and the resulting rage will become inter-generational.
This is if Idlib falls. Hopefully, it is clear to any sane person that this simply cannot be allowed to happen. It would have a horrific and likely permanent impact on the people of Syria, as well as countries in the region, Europe, and beyond. It has to be prevented by any means necessary.
But the consequences of the alternative that seems to be on the table in the ongoing discussions — in which the three million people of Idlib would be crammed into a sliver of land along the border with Turkey — would not be any less drastic.
Russia’s proposal: The same effect, only delayed
There seems to be a concerted effort by Russian forces to seal off the newly conquered areas around the M4 and M5 highways. Last week a map was circulated, according to which Russia is “offering” a small sliver of land, less than 1/10th of Idlib’s territory, in which more than three million people would be crammed. According to this “solution,” Assad’s gains from the onslaught would be cemented, while the remainder of Idlib territory would be patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces. Although any measure that would stop the killing and allow for badly needed aid to reach displaced people sheltering in makeshift camps and in the open in freezing, unforgiving conditions — conditions that have already resulted in the deaths of scores of children — would be an improvement, this cannot be a lasting solution.
In such a scenario, the majority of displaced people would flock to the areas near the Turkish border in search of safety. The Turkish border would remain closed, and many likely would die trying to cross it. The entire population of more than three million, crammed into this tiny area, would remain vulnerable to sporadic, deadly attacks from Assad’s forces and Russian aircraft, now far deadlier due to the far greater population density. These people would all be entirely dependent on aid for survival, likely living in makeshift accommodation unfit to withstand the harsh weather conditions. The inhumanity of this “solution” is such that it doesn’t warrant serious discussion. Many of the same implications as the fall of Idlib described above would still apply, only with a delayed and more devastating long-term effect.
As these scenarios make clear, the urgency for European and other powerful states to act on Idlib does not come from a moral imperative — Syrians have long abandoned such illusions — but from their own clear political and security interests. The immediate priority is to pressure Assad and Russia into a cease-fire and provide urgent aid to the displaced. Once the killing and the suffering of civilians is stopped, there must be a strong, concerted, and unrelenting push to secure a meaningful political solution that will guarantee a safe environment for all Syrians, under a robust international presence and backed up by guarantees. The humanitarian catastrophe that is Idlib has shown that the lessons from the beginning of World War II still apply: Appeasing dictators who are willing to kill massive numbers of people to realize their delusions of grandeur never works. But if the U.S., Europe, and the international community at large fail to heed these lessons, it will not only be Syrians who pay the price.
Labib al-Nahhas De La Ossa is a Syrian politician and activist, formerly an IT/software entrepreneur. Originally from the city of Homs, Syria, he is currently the Program Director at the Syrian Association for Citizens' Dignity (SACD). The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Esra Hacioglu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images