The death toll from airstrikes carried out by Russian and Syrian regime forces Monday morning in the de-escalation zone in Idlib province rose to 50 civilians, according to the White Helmets civil defense agency.

Dark side of the Grozny model in northeastern Syria

Syria's northeastern city of Idlib, a rebel-controlled enclave, has seen indiscriminate bombardment by the Syrian regime and Russian forces in the last few weeks. The humanitarian catastrophe is affecting civilians, mostly in the Idlib area.

Syria’s northeastern city of Idlib, a rebel-controlled enclave, has seen indiscriminate bombardment by the Syrian regime and Russian forces in the last few weeks. The humanitarian catastrophe is affecting civilians, mostly in the Idlib area. Scores of innocent civilians are dying every day under the rubble of buildings, in markets, hospitals and schools. Unfortunately, the world has remained silent to the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib. Many civilians left their homes to find refuge along the border with Turkey. It is the responsibility of Russia to stop the regime violence in the de-escalation zones according to the Astana and Sochi processes. Unfortunately, Russia is the mastermind of the ongoing destruction with its ideal solution being the Grozny model. Russia has embrassed the Grozny model to end the ongoing civil war in the western part of Syria.

Russian advisers have consistently mentioned the Chechnya model in almost all formal or informal environments when asked how they plan to address the ongoing crisis in Syria.

In cooperation with the Syrian Regime, Russians are sequentially implementing the Syrian version of the Grozny model in northwestern Syria. Ramazan Kadyrov, the pro-Russian leader of Chechnya, is also supporting Russia’s official policies in Syria.

Russian authorities highlighted the bright part of the “Grozny story,” more related to the reconstruction of the city and the stability that came in the aftermath of the whole scale involvement of Moscow. In 2003, the Chechen capital Grozny was the most devastated city on earth. The level of destruction and the humanitarian crises at the time was far beyond the stabilization efforts. Having suppressed opposition groups in Chechnya, Russia invested in rebuilding the city.

The Russian approach to address the Chechen issue in the early 2000s was one of the success stories of President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s involvement in Syria that led to the changing course of the civil war also transformed Moscow and Putin into a diplomatic superpower again.

In Syria, Russia demonstrated their version of “stabilization” and the “fight against extremism,” which does not resemble the post-Cold War “liberal” interventions of the U.S. and her allies. The darker side of the Grozny model was not elaborated much in global policy circles. Russian officials legitimized their bombardment of the city as part of their struggle against extremism.

The post-9/11 context and the discourse on the “global war on terror” helped Russian authorities deal with the Chechen issue more aggressively. Russian officials are keen to prove that their model is more effective than the liberal interventions or humanitarian interventions of the 1990s.

The Grozny model is not the appropriate option for the reconstruction of the city of Idlib. The model is a Russian vision to deal with the armed opposition in Syria. The Russian model in the Syrian case includes the concentration of all opposition groups and factions in Idlib with the Sochi process and the demolishing of the entire city with indiscriminate bombardment. The Syrian regime executed the indiscriminate shelling of Idlib but in close cooperation and coordination with Russian authorities.

It is not just the opposition and the extremists that are under the debris of indiscriminate destruction but also the civilians that escaped from regime attacks in the rest of the country. Such an approach is costly in terms of human losses as well as material destruction.

By punishing Idlib indiscriminately, regime forces are spreading sources of new extremism which may destabilize the country in the medium and long term. The regime also demonstrates cruelty in its bombardment of Idlib as an example to other areas or places that may consider an uprising.

The bombardment in Idlib is one of the cruelest examples of collective punishment rather than a stabilization effort. What will come out of the rubble is a severe concern for Turkey and the neighboring countries. We know that the American approach to suppress opposition in the Iraqi city of Falluja facilitated the process of the emergence of Daesh.

Mosul is still vulnerable to the influence of extremist groups after the bloody struggle against Daesh. Turkey is concerned about humanitarian issues as well as the possible trends of further extremism that may be caused due to the indiscriminate killing of civilians in northeast Syria.

It was not the Grozny model that Turkey signed up for with the Astana and Sochi processes. Turkey has instead tried to facilitate a more humane solution that would bring stability to all of Syria. Russia has not demonstrated flexibility in their way of addressing the opposition in Syria. They consider everyone living in the Idlib area as terrorists, and they support the Syrian regime’s indiscriminate shelling and demolishing of the infrastructure of the city.

Hospitals, schools, marketplaces and apartments are deliberately targeted, without taking into account the human cost. Russia is missing the opportunity to turn into an actor that can broker a fair and sustainable peace in Syria and elsewhere. It becomes more difficult and costly for Turkey and the other actors to cooperate with Moscow on humanitarian issues.

Russia and the Syrian regime may be powerful enough to implement the first part of the Grozny model, the destruction, in Syria; but they also have to create consent and rebuild the country. They do not seem to be prepared for the positive side of the Grozny model. That is a matter of concern not only for Turkey but also for the neighboring countries of Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan – and for Europe too.

[Daily Sabah, 26 July 2019]

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