The last battle

Hussein Haridy
Friday 7 Sep 2018

The endgame is in sight for the Syrian Civil War. But after the guns fall silent, the task will still remain of managing the aftermath

After more than seven years of war, turmoil and a reign of terror at the hands of myriad terrorist groups, the most notorious among which was IS, the Arab Syrian Army is poised to launch the battle of Idlib in the north west of Syria.

Everyone is expecting a fierce battle with the rebel and terrorist groups operating there.

There are tens of terrorist groups operating in this part of Syria of doubtful allegiance save the former Al-Nusra Front of Mohamed Al-Goulani, the man of Al-Qaeda in Syria for years.

His group changed its name in August 2016 in an attempt to gain a certain respectability in the eyes of the United States and the European powers that have been actively involved in Syria, namely France, the United Kingdom and Germany. It is operating now under the name of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.

The battle for Idlib comes after a string of military victories for the Syrian army, assisted by Russia, Iran and pro-Iranian militias.

It had begun with the liberation of the eastern part of Aleppo in December 2016 from rebel and terror groups and ended just a couple of weeks ago by regaining control of the south and the south west of Syria, a vast geographical region that comprises Deraa, Al-Kuneitera and Al-Seweyda.

A few weeks before, the Syrian army successfully cleared Al-Kalamoun and eastern Gouta around Damascus of rebel and terrorist groups after they negotiated, through Russian intermediaries, their departure from these territories and their evacuation to Idlib.

These groups are now facing a stark choice. Either they agree to a total surrender and accept to live under the Syria flag, or they will be wiped out.

The liberation of the southern and the southwestern parts of Syria came after the American-Russian summit of 16 July in Helsinki.

Even though this region had been designated as a de-escalation zone, in a trilateral agreement signed in July 2017 by the United States, Russia and Jordan, the green light to recapture it from rebel groups was given in Helsinki.

The battle for Idlib similarly would take place without serious American objections, a needed precondition for its ultimate success.

American and European officials have been warning against a humanitarian disaster in case the Syrian army goes on the offensive to retake the last terrorist stronghold in Syria.

The UN special envoy to Syria Staffan di Mistura, called two days ago for a humanitarian corridor to enable 100,000 of civilians to leave Idlib and its surroundings to escape the bloody battle.

There are three and a half million civilians that would bear the brunt of the expected military offensive.

Last Thursday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moallem was in Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who stressed on the following day the right of the Syrian government to launch an attack to regain control of Idlib and liberate it from “terrorists”, while acknowledging that talks are taking place to agree on humanitarian corridors for civilians.

In other words, no power, regional or international, is truly serious in stopping the Syrian military offensive in Idlib.

The question for most of them is how to manage the political fallout of a major Syrian military victory, and how to use it to revive the Geneva process in order to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015.

One major challenge for the United States, European powers and their strategic allies and partners in the Middle East, including Israel, is how to contain the future Iranian role and influence in Syria, once the Syrian government takes back full control of Syrian territories.

To this end, an American delegation, comprising Ambassador James Jeffrey and Secretary of State for Syria Engagement and US Special Envoy to Syria Joel Rayburn, travelled to Israel, Jordan and Turkey, 1-4 September. 

In Israel, they were expected to discuss with senior Israeli officials how best to maintain Israel’s security while countering Iran’s destabilising activities throughout the Middle East.

Their toned-down message to Jordanian and Turkish officials centred around the American position that an Idlib offensive by the Syrian Army would escalate the “crisis”.

On the other hand, Western diplomatic manoeuvring is centring on two major points besides containing Iran in Syria and assuring Israeli security.

The first is to make sure that the last seven years of war in Syria that has been backed by them won’t end without a certain diplomatic victory for their cause, which will be a more democratic Syria with the presence of President Bashar Al-Assad in power for some time until democratic elections are held in the future, once the Syrian government and the opposition, under the auspices of the United Nations, agree on a constitution.

The second is to present the denouement of the Syrian Civil War as a triumph for the international community, represented by the United Nations, and not an outright and an undisputed diplomatic and strategic victory for Putin’s Russia.

The fact of the matter is that once Idlib is liberated and all of Syria comes back under the full sovereignty of the Syrian government, that will be a resounding diplomatic triumph for President Putin.

It will be, on the other hand, a major defeat for the Arab allies and partners of the West who backed and bankrolled the rebellion in Syria against President Al-Assad.

Their only solace will be the curtailing of Iranian influence in Syria, and a resolute American effort to roll back Iranian influence across the Middle East.

On this particular point, there is an agreement between Washington and Moscow.

Last Friday, the Israeli minister of defence said that his country has been monitoring lately the scaling down of the Iranian presence in Syria.

The great power game in the Middle East is becoming clearer by the day. However, the price paid by the Arabs has proven costly and highly destabilising.

As far as Egypt is concerned, if the Syrian army accomplishes its mission of reconquering the last rebel and terrorist stronghold in Syria, it would be a consequential victory for its own war on terrorism.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The last battle

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