The Trump Administration’s Grandstand on Idlib


White Helmets volunteers search for survivors in Idlib province after a Syrian regime airstrike.

In the eleventh hour of the Syrian war, the United States is attempting to restrain the looming Russia-backed offensive of the Syrian regime to take over the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition in Idlib Province. This new approach by President Donald Trump’s administration is testing the leverage of US policy in Syria as well as Washington’s relations with both Moscow and Ankara.

While the Syrian war is largely over, the Idlib battle will arguably decide how it will ultimately conclude. Idlib is strategically located between the Alawite stronghold in Latakia province to the west, the Iran-influenced city of Aleppo to the east, and the Turkish-held territories to the north. The piecemeal approach to resolving the Syrian civil war in the last two years came at the expense of Idlib. All armed groups and ordinary citizens who opted to leave their areas across Syria—instead of surrendering to the Syrian regime—found refuge in Idlib. Estimates are 2.5–3.3 million Syrian refugees (half of them internally displaced) and 100,000 fighters, between the armed opposition and radical groups, are there. If the Syrian regime controls the region, those fleeing the area would have nowhere to go except to the Turkish-held territories in northern Syria.

While the Syrian war is largely over, the Idlib battle will arguably decide how it will ultimately conclude.

Controlling Idlib gives the Syrian regime full control of the Damascus-Aleppo highway as well as the Aleppo-Latakia trade route. It also ends the 16-month experiment with “de-escalation zones” and leaves only three major areas out of the Syrian regime’s control: the US-held area in al-Tanf at the intersection of the Iraqi-Jordanian-Syrian border in the southeast; the Turkish-held area west of the Euphrates River in the north; and the US-backed, Kurdish-held area east of the Euphrates, heading southeast to Deir Ezzor province. This will have a significant impact on the stalled peace talks as the Syrian opposition will no longer exercise territorial control in the country. The Syrian regime gave a September 10 deadline for diplomatic efforts before launching a ground operation with Iranian-backed groups and the cover of Russian airstrikes. The Russian and Syrian regimes have been intermittently striking Idlib since August 10, and most recently on September 4, they shelled the Jisr al-Shughour area in the west, which is the stronghold of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS responded on September 5 by launching rockets toward Latakia. The Idlib battle seems to be a matter of time and cost rather than that of taking place at all. However, the Trump Administration is is half-heartedly endorsing a diplomatic effort to restrain this looming battle.

New Dynamics in US Policy toward Syria

The Trump Administration’s positions on Idlib over the last week reveal a consensus that it is not critical to US strategic interests; however, officials differ on the extent to which Washington should push back against Russia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leading the US pushback on Idlib. He is building a State Department team that has long advocated for a tougher US position on Syria, including Ambassador James Jeffrey as special representative and David Schenker as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford are increasingly vocal regarding the need to support a political process in Syria. In his tweet on September 3, Trump sent a message to the Russians that there is no daylight between the White House and the Department of State on Idlib. However, Trump’s tone was rather reconciliatory, lending timid support to Pompeo.

It is noteworthy that he referred to “President Bashar al-Assad” instead of “Animal Assad,” the description he used in April. Trump did not mention Turkey and advised Russia and Iran against “making a grave humanitarian mistake” in Idlib. He concluded by saying “Don’t let that happen,” which did not carry any deterrence and was probably interpreted in Moscow as a green light to go in carefully without using chemical weapons. Hours after Trump’s tweet, Russian planes struck parts of western Idlib. On September 5, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gave a more explicit endorsement of the offensive by noting that if the Syrian regime wants to “continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that, but they cannot do it with chemical weapons.”

This lack of consensus in the Trump Administration on how to approach US policy in Syria has existed since 2011. One US official was rather blunt in admitting to the Washington Post on September 4: “Right now, our job is to help create quagmires (for Russia and the Syrian regime) until we get what we want.” Yet, the official did not say what Washington wants exactly. In July, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton had a slightly different approach, asserting that the “strategic issue” for the United States in Syria is Iran. The most noticeable shift in recent US policy is that it became aligned with Israel regarding the need to withdraw Iranian forces from all of Syria, not just 80 kilometers away from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The Trump Administration’s positions on Idlib over the last week reveal a consensus that it is not critical to US strategic interests; however, officials differ on the extent to which Washington should push back against Russia.

Moreover, the current machinations over Idlib represent a déjà vu scenario in the Syrian war. Moscow orchestrated propaganda that the United States and the White Helmets were staging a chemical attack to justify an American strike on Syria. Washington, in return, warned that it would be relentless in responding to any use of chemical weapons and denied that the Syrian armed opposition has such weapons. As part of this information warfare, Russian authorities wrongly claimed that US Navy ships are in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch this strike, and the Trump Administration leaked that a list of Syrian chemical weapons facilities is ready in case Trump authorized a strike.

The US effort has now shifted to the United Nations, which means the Trump Administration will repeat what has been done since President Barack Obama’s administration: shaming Russia at the UN since the international community cannot stop Russian advances on the ground in Syria. The UN Security Council will hold a meeting on September 7 on Idlib while the leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey are meeting in Tehran to decide the timing of the Idlib offensive. But despite all the forceful statements issued by the Trump Administration, it does not look like the United States is interested in or willing to prevent this battle.

US-Russia Tensions beyond Idlib

This growing tension between the United States and Russia is not all about Idlib; after all, Washington quickly conceded southwestern Syria despite having allies among the Syrian armed opposition in that area—unlike in Idlib. The investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election is clearly looming over relations between Washington and Moscow. This partially explains the posturing on both sides over Idlib. It is worth noting that US sanctions on Russia came into effect on August 27, prompted by the alleged Russian nerve agent attack in March in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the USS Carney (DDG 64) with guided missile destroyers entered the Black Sea on August 12 and held combined training with the Georgian Coast Guard before leaving on August 27. While it is clear, however, that Moscow is not backing away from the Idlib offensive, Russia’s decision to send its largest-ever naval armada for a week of war games in the Mediterranean seems partially linked to US Navy maneuvers in the Black Sea.

Washington’s Difficult and Complex Relations with Ankara

US and Turkish interests in Syria are aligned when it comes to how Russia and Iran are propping up the Assad regime; however, they are contradictory when it comes to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Because of Idlib, Russian and Iranian interests in Syria are more aligned compared to a few months ago. The Trump Administration sees in Idlib an opportunity to benefit from the crack in Turkey’s alliance with Russian and Iran; on September 4, Pompeo spoke to his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoğlu, and both agreed that the Idlib offensive is “an unacceptable reckless escalation of the conflict in Syria.” However, the damage inflicted on relations between Washington and Ankara leaves Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with limited options on Idlib. The White House has clearly made the issue of the US pastor detained in Turkey, Andrew Brunson, a national security priority.

US and Turkish interests in Syria are aligned when it comes to how Russia and Iran are propping up the Assad regime; however, they are contradictory when it comes to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

US and Turkish troops are currently conducting separate patrols in Manbij, where they are communicating rather than marching together as originally agreed. The Pentagon recently sent equipment to Ankara; US and Turkish forces are conducting combined training there before jointly deploying in Manbij. This temporary solution is helping both sides contain the situation, though the loss of Idlib would put additional strains on this difficult and complex US-Turkish relationship.

Turkey is vulnerable economically as it faces recent US economic sanctions and seems more vulnerable to Russian pressure. On August 31, Ankara designated HTS as a terrorist organization. Erdoğan signaled that he is hopeful the Tehran summit “will succeed in averting the extreme actions of the (Syrian) regime” in Idlib. However, Russia and Iran are arguing that Turkey was given enough time—since last year—to contain the situation in Idlib but it has failed to do so. The Turkish offer to dissolve HTS and create a new force under Turkish command does not look feasible. HTS is already coalescing with other radical groups and is increasingly independent in its decisions. Its fighters could potentially prevent Idlib residents from fleeing and hold them hostage instead. No matter how the offensive scenario plays out, there will be a significant humanitarian cost. If Turkey agrees to stay neutral in the Idlib offensive, Russia would have to give something in return. This bargaining might be decided in the September 7 summit in Tehran.

Idlib and Beyond

The United States and Russia are grandstanding on Idlib, and this puts them both in a difficult position if they were to decide to scale back their rhetoric. Russia and Iran will use controlling the province as an impetus to advance the return of Syrian refugees and to begin reconstruction efforts, hence attempting to normalize the current dynamics in Syria. The United States, however, is trying to delay this process.

The United States and Russia are grandstanding on Idlib, and this puts them both in a difficult position if they were to decide to scale back their rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is aiming to open a “humanitarian corridor” for civilians from Idlib into Turkey, which might weaken the resolve of Idlib residents and prompt their flight. However, as of September 5, the Syrian regime and HTS were continuing the normal business operations1 of al-Ays border crossing in the southern outskirts of Aleppo, which they run across from each other. Turkish forces remain at their observation points around Idlib, as stipulated in the Astana process. While Turkey has sent reinforcements to the province’s outskirts, it remains unable to exert control over this area. Ankara faces challenges to bringing order even to the areas under its control in northern Syria.

If the United States is serious about saving Idlib, policy steps are required beyond rhetoric, including mending fences with Turkey and engaging Russia on Syria. While the Pentagon is clearly linking the presence of US forces in Syria to advancing a UN-sponsored political process, this approach does not seem widely shared by officials in the Trump Administration since it would most likely require engaging Moscow. In return, Russian officials aim to seize control of Idlib in the quickest way possible—they are not interested in a protracted offensive. Washington is making this task more difficult but not impossible.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in Arabic.