Ad-lib in Idlib
“No one is acting according to their responsibilities, human rights wise or otherwise,” commissioner Karen Abuzayed told Al Jazeera.
Are you amply confused yet by all that is happening in Syria these days? It has gone on now for about 7 years. 350,000 people have died. Did you get that? 350,000. When was the last war that took 350,000 lives? That is approximately 137 people per day for 7 years. That would be roughly equivalent to every man, woman and child in St Louis, Missouri being killed. The question all of mankind needs to ask is, why? What’s going on that people are so angry that it has lasted 7 years?
What is not fully being talked about is that this entire crisis is about to come to a boil, a turning point that could mean the displacement or death of another 2 million people, mostly civilians, women and children. That number would be on top of the 13 million already displaced internally and externally since the war begin in March 2011.
Over the past several years enclaves of rebel units have been over run by the al Assad regime, each time adding to the numbers of rebels finding refuge in the city fo Idlib. With an area of 6,000sq km, Idlib is home to around three million people. The UN has warned that an offensive in the area could force 2.5 million of them towards the Turkish border and precipitate a massive humanitarian crisis. Idlib is also home to more than 60,000 well-armed opposition fighters. The presence of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) further complicates the situation. With more than 12,000 fighters, HTS controls a great part of Idlib and has vowed to fight to the end.
Over the next 2 weeks I want to discuss the currently unfolding situation in Idlib, Syria; who the players are, why they are playing, how they plan to win, and what this will cost humanity if it goes wrong. Because right now, it looks like the major players are ad-libing with millions of lives at stake in Idlib… and as usual, there is so much more than meets the eye.
The Syrian War in a snapshot- The war can be divided into several phases that blend together:
- A phase of protest in 2011.
- A phase of armed rebellion in 2012.
- A phase of brutal regime suppression, including chemical weapons attacks in 2013.
- The rise of Islamic State and the greater Islamification of the rebellion in 2014.
- The intervention of Russia in 2015.
- The intervention of the United States and Turkey in 2016.
- The defeat of ISIS in 2017.
That brings us to 2018. Let me start by outlining very quickly who the players are in this Syria conflict today and why they are there.
Players: There is an immense number of players on this field. Each one of them has a different reason for being in this game. For a more in-depth look at who’s who click here.
- President Bashar al-Assad- The President of Syria. He is said by some to be the reason that all this is happening. I am not so sure. Clearly he is a wicked man, but if it were not for so many others propping him up for each of their own reasons, I am not so sure he would stand or that it would be any different.
- Turkey- Racked by the influx of almost 3 million Syrian refugees, Turkey has some serious skin in the game. Strained relations with its western allies, economic struggles and internal political instability has caused it to have to reshape its involvement in Syria. Turkey is knee deep in this conflict. It currently has thousands of troops deployed through the operational landscape. A continued conflict will only see its casualties increase, a reality which will only imperil its current administration and further lead it down a road to extreme internal conflict.
- Russia- Since September 2015, Assad’s fate has been tied to presence of the Russian army. Russia is not protecting Assad because of any significant economic or military ties, but for two other specific reasons. First, they realized that terrorist groups had to be stopped and they were certain that Syria was the place to do it. Secondly, and I believe more importantly, It has an important military airbase in the western province of Latakia and a naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus. Russia believes that its geopolitical presence in the Mediterranean is mandatory for its role as a regional power broker and as a counter-balance to US influence in the Middle East. Putin is obsessed with it.
- United States- The United States initially got involved during President Obama’s administration as a meals to counter the expansion of ISIS. It started off as a promise that there would be “no US boots on the ground.” Demonstrating even after 7 years as President, that he had a difficult time distinguishing between campaigning and governance. That promise was a difficult one to stick to. I think all soldiers in Syria were mandated to wear sneakers and not boots. (that is only hearsay) During President Trumps tenure so far American Special Operations troops have entrenched much more deeply after the CIA arms and training program was abruptly ended, when they realized that many of the weapons were winding up on the hands of almost assuredly al-Qaeda fighters. Since that time, the US presence has been hotly contested by just about everybody. Especially, since the fighters that the US decided to partner with were Kurdish peshmerga. They proved over and over again that they were the only ones with the expertise and courage to take on ISIS and push them out of the region, which they did.
- Iran- Together with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran and Syria form a self-declared “Axis of Resistance” meant to counter both Israel and the West’s aims in the Middle East. The Iranians are both sending troops to Syria as well as arming and training Lebanese based Hezbollah fighters. Iran has been an ally of al-Assad for many years. They are determined to be a regional power and their role in Syria has positioned them to become a major player in the region for years to come.
- Kurds- The People’s Protection Units (YPG) The multi-ethnic, semi-autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) has so far been getting military and diplomatic support from the US-led coalition, and that support will determine a lot about the Kurds’ future in Syria. They have one simple goal. They want their own country from which live and self-govern. There are over 20 millions scattered between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They simply want a homeland of their own. As passionate as they are to gain that homeland, the Turks, Iraqis, Iranians and Syrians are passionate about them not having it. The Kurds will continue to be the fly in the ointment as they are the best soldiers in the region, but without the help of a major power, they will remain homeland-less.
- Iraq- There is a real concern in Iraq that an escalation in Syria could create a dangerous security vacuum, strengthening the position of holdout IS militants who are already present near the Iraqi-Syrian border. Iraqs main concern is the security of its western border, particularly from terrorist groups who may move that direction if they believe that there is a possibility of a home there.
- Israel- The Israeli government’s greatest fear is a dramatic regional escalation, and the possibility that Syria will become a theatre of open conflict between Russia and states like the US, UK and France. The Israeli government faces a growing security challenge on its southern border, where there are weekly protests by thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. But the more serious security concern is the country’s extremely tense northern border with Syria.
- European Union and NATO- Though the EU and NATO are not the same thing they share a lot of common players. Their primary concern is the escalation of conflict that might spread to Europe. They are also concerned about the continued flow of Refugees who are trying to come to Europe. With another possible flow of refugees, it could very well over tax the already heavily burdened welfare system within European countries. NATO remains a serious player in the counter-balancing of Russia as well. Even though there is serious tension between the EU and the current US administration, there is little change between the close friendship and partnership between the US military and the militaries of NATO.
- Armed anti-government Rebel groups– There are believed to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups in Syria, commanding an estimated 100,000 fighters. “Among the estimated 60,000 opposition fighters in Idlib are at least 10,000 radicals affiliated with the al-Qaida-linked group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee),” AP writes. “Thousands of foreign fighters, from China, Europe and the Middle East, are the backbone of the radical groups. I won’t try to name them all. But I will give you some websites that can if you are interested.
Next week we will look at how events are unfolding particularly in Idlib and what we can expect as a result of major players machinations. These events are unfolding this week. This is not history, this is a current event…perhaps even today.
We don’t know who our enemy is anymore. There has always been a “fog of war.” The confusion in war is blinding and the human inability to see through it only foments the problem of conflict. What is clear is that every player comes to this regional conflict with its own agenda and is ready to go to great lengths to secure its interests. Billions, if not trillions of dollars are being spent and the toll of human life is staggering. So why are so many dying and why so much devotion to what appears to be certain self-destruction by all those involved. I listed the players above. To go into their full reasons for their involvement would require books to be written. But in a nutshell, the reason for each country is a combination of variables. For some it is historical, the lingering abuses of power have left a sour taste in the mouths of leaders. For others, their involvement is pride. They cannot stand the thought of being left on the global sidelines and they will do whatever it takes to assert their power and remain on the global stage. Still for others, it is about money and greed. Many of those fighting come from all over the world to fight and are doing so for wealth and greed. The Russians have hired thousands of contractors who are no less than mercenaries. They have a company called Wagner. It is the equivalent of a soldier for hire enterprise. Lastly, many are fighting out of anger and hatred. They have been abused or marginalized and they have had enough. They are willing to go to great lengths of compromise and violence to get back at those who have hurt them.
When all is said and none, no one wins in this scenario. Millions will be left homeless, hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children will be wounded and killed as these players act out their agendas at the total expense of non-combatants, who just want to live in peace.
It feels almost like a hopeless cause sometimes. The stakes are too high, the variables are too complicated. The cost of human life is staggering. It is producing a flood of refugees and asylum seekers unprecedented in human history. So what can be done?
- Let’s pray together. There is a great resource for prayer in the Syrian Circle. www.thesyriancircle.comThis prayer movement has been instrumental in helping many to pray intelligently for what is going on among the Syrian people during this incredible day of need.
- Let’s Prepare together. One day this will come to a conclusion. Many will go back to their homes and the time to rebuild will be upon us. It is estimated that the rebuilding will cost Syria about $200 billion. That may be the cost to build, but as we do the cost to restore hope and to demonstrate the love of Christ is free. Organizations like Samaritan’s purse, World Vision and the International Mission Board are working feverishly to prepare for an opportunity to serve in ways we have never seen.
- Let’s Provide together- The opportunities to provide housing, food, clothing and love are all around us as so many refugees have made their way to our neighborhoods. Let’s provide them with hospitality, with a helping hand. Invite them into your home and see how you can serve them. This is Christ’s way. Let’s join together and serve in a way that they see the love of Christ in us.
Boaz Ganor (2002) Defining Terrorism: Is One Man’s Terrorist another Man’s Freedom Fighter?, Police Practice and Research, 3:4, 287-304, DOI: 10.1080/1561426022000032060