February 10, 2020 | Russian and Syrian regime forces carried out airstrikes in northwestern Syria’s Idlib de-escalation zone, killing at least 17 civilians, a Syrian civil defense group announced Sunday. The White Helmets said areas near Idlib’s city center and villages were targeted. Turkey is continuing to send reinforcements to the de-escalation zone, with a Turkish convoy including scores of tanks deployed at different points in Idlib. The Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies have continued intensified air and land attacks on civilian settlements in the zone. In September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited. Since then, however, more than 1,800 civilians there have been killed in attacks by regime and Russian forces as the ceasefire continues to be violated. Turkey announced on Jan. 10 that a new ceasefire in Idlib would start just after midnight on Jan. 12, but the regime and Iran-backed terrorist groups continued their attacks. More than 1.5 million Syrians have moved near the Turkish border due to intense attacks over the past year. Turkey remains the country with the most refugees in the world, hosting more than 3.7 million migrants since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Idlib is the test of tests

The Syria civil war has been a test for the international community since it began almost nine years ago. The world has failed to respond and stop the bloodshed as the worst humanitarian tragedy since World War II unfolded under its watchful eyes.

The Syria civil war has been a test for the international community since it began almost nine years ago. The world has failed to respond and stop the bloodshed as the worst humanitarian tragedy since World War II unfolded under its watchful eyes. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed by the Assad regime and its supporters, while millions have become refugees or internally displaced. Most of the humanitarian norms set forth by international law after World War II, based on the principle of never again, were violated. The regime even got away with using weapons of mass destruction against its own people. At every critical juncture in the last nine years, the international community has failed to react in a meaningful way to stop the violence.

Turkey has been mostly alone in dealing with the consequences of the Syrian civil war, without much support from the world. More than 3.5 million refugees fled to Turkey, escaping persecution by the regime or terrorist groups. These refugees found shelter in Turkish cities and refugee camps mostly paid for by the Turkish government.

Meanwhile, terrorist groups that found a safe haven in northern Syria emerged as a threat to Turkey’s national security.

The Turkish government has participated in all the potential solution initiatives for the Syrian problem. From Geneva to Astana, Turkey has become one of the key actors. However, every critical turning point in the Syrian crisis generated a sense of disappointment among the Turkish public which has now grown to the level of frustration in regards to the international community. Turkey has received little help in dealing with the refugee crisis. It did not receive much support either in its fight against terrorism.

With the latest developments in Idlib, we are at another major turning point in the Syrian crisis. The Russia-backed regime forces violated the Sochi deal and launched a new offensive in the region, under the pretext of the presence of radical elements there.

Despite the claims, the regime forces and Russian airstrikes have mostly targeted hospitals and civilian infrastructures in Idlib over the last several weeks. After each and every bombing we have seen destruction reminiscent of the nine years of bloody attacks by the Syrian regime. Hundreds of thousands of people, including many internally displaced, have fled their homes to save their families from this carnage.

On top of that, the regime also attacked Turkish troops present in the area as per the Turkey-Russia agreement. The attack took place only a week after President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey and a cease-fire announcement for Idlib was made. Under these circumstances, there are multiple questions about what is going on in Idlib.

First of all, the Turkish public demands that something should be done to stop the violence against the Syrian civilians. The death and destruction caused by the bombing of civilian neighborhoods in Idlib are closely felt in Turkey.

Even though the Syria crisis was not a successful test for the international community, its failure in Idlib will constitute a shameful record in history. The reaction of international actors in regard to the latest crisis will also have an impact on Turkey’s relations with these actors. The insensitivity of some countries toward the refugee crisis and the failed U.S. commitments in regards to its “red lines” have already generated a lack of trust for these countries in relation to Syria. Now, their reaction to the humanitarian crisis in Idlib could further deteriorate the trust. This would impact long-term relations between Turkey and these countries. At this point, Turkey expects more than statements of support and sympathy, but solid proposals, to help resolve the crisis.

Besides, if the regime’s action continues and goes unpunished, this pattern of violence will further destabilize the region and become a future model for repressive regimes around the world.

Civil wars can generate all forms of trouble for neighboring countries. The short-term impact of radicalization and humanitarian costs were already seen in Syria. In the medium and long-term, there will be more severe consequences for the Syrian regime’s actions.

The presence of a lost generation of Syrians, their increasing lack of trust toward norms and rules and the lack of any security framework to contain the spillovers create major international security risks. The “solutions” provided by the international powers were either helping the regime to continue the bloodshed or avoiding to deal with the problem as if it is not there. Both “solutions” further aggravated the problem. It needs to be understood that this is a challenge that needs the collective effort of the international community. It cannot be solved by one country alone and the current “solutions” offered by the major powers will only come back to haunt them in the future.

The crisis in Idlib is generating another refugee challenge for the region, a challenge that Turkey cannot deal with alone. For nine years now only a handful of actors have shown sensitivity to the refugee crises, and it was the same set of actors that opened the doors to people fleeing violence in the region. While Russia, through its support for the Syrian regime, contributed to the humanitarian crisis most of the European countries failed to contain it and made the seas around them a graveyard for the refugees.

In the meantime, the U.S. failed to take any meaningful action to help solve the refugee issue. Now faced with another major refugee wave from Idlib, the international community will be tested one more time. The new refugee wave may not stop at Turkey’s borders this time and can come with its own challenges for the European countries.

All of these developments show that Idlib should be a wake-up call for the international community. Avoiding to see it or making statements without much action will contribute to the deterioration of the problem. It is that final test for an international community, which has so far failed all the tests in Syria.

[Daily Sabah, 10 February 2020]

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