Civil­ians flee as Syria, Rus­sia press fight in Idlib

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBYN DIXON, LIZ SLY AND KA­REEM FAHIM [email protected]­post.com [email protected]­post.com ka­[email protected]­post.com Sly re­ported from Beirut and Fahim from Gaziantep, Turkey.

A Syr­ian fam­ily flee­ing at­tacks by pro-gov­ern­ment forces drives past a burn­ing shop in the town of Abin Se­maan, just east of Idlib prov­ince. As Pres­i­dent Bashar al-as­sad’s forces ad­vance against the last rebel bas­tions in Syria’s north­west, they are re­ceiv­ing help from Rus­sia, whose airstrikes un­der­score a wider strat­egy in the re­gion.

MOSCOW — Here’s one take on Syria: “On the whole, the sit­u­a­tion in Syria has sta­bi­lized con­sid­er­ably. Peace­ful life is re­turn­ing to the coun­try. Its econ­omy and so­cial life is be­ing re­stored.”

That was from the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry, only con­ced­ing a few tense hot spots, in its Jan. 23 brief­ing.

Here’s an­other take, from U.S. spe­cial en­voy for Syria James F. Jef­frey, last week: “We think that this is an ex­tremely dan­ger­ous con­flict. You see the prob­lems right now in Idlib. It needs to be brought to an end. Rus­sia needs to change its poli­cies.”

Rus­sia’s rosy de­pic­tion of Syria is in stark con­trast to the dystopian im­ages from Idlib — the smok­ing ru­ins of bombed­out homes and the dis­placed people forced to flee. Fam­i­lies weep over the charred re­mains of their dead, killed in bomb at­tacks by Syr­ian or Rus­sian planes.

The Syr­ian regime is determined to wipe out the last strong­hold of rebel re­sis­tance in Idlib prov­ince, in Syria’s north­west bor­der­ing Turkey. And Rus­sia has given the of­fen­sive its full sup­port, through airstrikes.

Moscow’s goal is not just back­ing an old friend, Syria. It’s also about pro­ject­ing Rus­sian global power against NATO, all the while jug­gling Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s com­pli­cated friendship with an­other like-minded au­thor­i­tar­ian, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan.

Rus­sian and Syr­ian war­planes have hit civil­ian tar­gets such as hos­pi­tals, bak­eries and mar­kets, ac­cord­ing to ob­servers. The strat­egy, they say, seems cal­cu­lated to drive civil­ians out, de­pop­u­lat­ing towns and vil­lages so that the Syr­ian mil­i­tary can sweep through un­chal­lenged.

The area’s res­i­dents, many of whom have fled their homes once or twice be­fore dur­ing Syria’s long civil war, are flee­ing to­ward the Turk­ish bor­der. But they are blocked from en­try, leav­ing them stranded, forced to find shel­ter in un­fin­ished build­ings, aban­doned schools or un­der trees in the freez­ing win­ter.

The toll on civil­ians is dev­as­tat­ing. But nei­ther this, nor Western out­rage, ap­pears to shift Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary cal­cu­lus, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian mil­i­tary an­a­lyst Pavel Fel­gen­hauer of the Jamestown Foun­da­tion.

“The Rus­sian mil­i­tary says their at­tacks are pre­cise, that no civil­ian was hurt,” he said. “But, of course, ev­ery­one un­der­stands that that’s hog­wash.”

El­iz­a­beth Tsurkov, a Syria ex­pert at the For­eign Policy Re­search In­sti­tute, said Rus­sia and Syria now seem com­mit­ted to a mil­i­tary ad­vance, which may leave a mere sliver of land along the Turk­ish bor­der for rebels and the 3 mil­lion Idlib civil­ians. An­other part of the of­fen­sive, she said, ap­peared in­tent on break­ing their spirit by creat­ing mis­ery and fear.

“Their track record through­out this war has demon­strated this time and time again. I don’t think they care about civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and, at times, they even find them use­ful for their policy of pur­pose­ful de­pop­u­la­tion of the ar­eas of the front lines,” Tsurkov said.

Aside from a close al­liance with Syria going back many decades, Rus­sia’s main strate­gic in­ter­est is two cru­cial mil­i­tary bases: the Hmeimim air base and the Tar­tus naval base, giv­ing it a prized mil­i­tary foothold on the Mediter­ranean Sea and the doorstep of NATO mem­ber Turkey.

“The Krem­lin has a much wider view than the in­ter­nal Syr­ian petty in­fight­ing,” Fel­gen­hauer said.

Most cru­cial is Hmeimim air base, which pro­vides air cover for the Rus­sian navy in the eastern Mediter­ranean. Pro­tect­ing the bases means se­cur­ing the rule of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-as­sad, Fel­gen­hauer said.

“That’s the main driv­ing point for Rus­sia,” he said. “As a ma­jor strate­gic geopo­lit­i­cal as­set, Hmeimim should be safe from any rogue forces. These two bases are pro­ject­ing force out of Syria into the Mediter­ranean, but from the Rus­sian point of view, they should have a se­cure perime­ter.”

Rus­sia’s sup­port for Syria’s drive to re­gain ter­ri­tory in Idlib risks jeop­ar­diz­ing an­other strate­gic prize for Moscow: its at­tempt to build closer ties with Turkey.

The bonds be­tween Putin and Er­do­gan have driven a wedge be­tween Turkey and its main NATO ally, the United States. And that rift has fur­ther em­pow­ered Rus­sia as the dom­i­nant player in Syria.

Idlib is an­other test for Turkey and Rus­sia. Er­do­gan’s gov­ern­ment will not eas­ily ac­cept an en­clave of sev­eral mil­lion des­per­ate, im­pov­er­ished people on its bor­der, be­cause of the risk that large num­bers would find their way across, Tsurkov said.

Turkey has ac­cused Rus­sia of vi­o­lat­ing their 2018 agree­ment — signed by Putin and Er­do­gan in the Rus­sian city of Sochi — that was meant to cre­ate a de­mil­i­ta­rized zone be­tween Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces and op­po­si­tion fight­ers.

But Rus­sia has also ac­cused Turkey of breach­ing its obli­ga­tion un­der the deal to rid the area of ex­trem­ist mili­tias such as Hayat Tahrir al-sham, a for­mer al- Qaeda af­fil­i­ate that is now the big­gest op­po­si­tion fight­ing group in Syria. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, mean­while, was to be given ac­cess to the strate­gic M5 high­way, which links the cap­i­tal, Da­m­as­cus, to the ma­jor city of

Aleppo.

Al­though Turkey dis­patched troops to es­tab­lish ob­ser­va­tion posts along the zone, other as­pects of the deal, in­clud­ing the re­moval of ex­trem­ist fight­ers, were never im­ple­mented.

Last April, Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces launched an of­fen­sive to take back the area, cul­mi­nat­ing in the re­cap­ture of the M5 high­way this week.

Syria and Rus­sia ar­gue that their ad­vance was in re­sponse to at­tacks by ter­ror­ists.

“The most important thing we are talk­ing about is the fight against ter­ror­ism which the armed forces of the Syr­ian Arab repub­lic are leading, on Syria’s ter­ri­tory,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Thurs­day.

The cri­sis has es­ca­lated sharply in re­cent days. Er­do­gan de­manded that Rus­sia stop Syria’s ad­vance and is­sued an ul­ti­ma­tum that Syria with­draw to its 2018 po­si­tions by the end of the month.

And the con­flict could es­ca­late fur­ther.

“I think Turkey is in over its head in Idlib. . . . It has placed its forces in a highly vul­ner­a­ble po­si­tion,” Tsurkov said. “They’re sit­ting ducks.”

IBRAHIM YASOUF/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces are seen af­ter seiz­ing the Rashideen al-rabea area in north­west Syria. Their ad­vance has forced hun­dreds of thou­sands of civil­ians to flee.

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