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The battle for Idlib

Sep 18,2018 - Last updated at Sep 18,2018

Concerns that the battle to liberate Syria's Idlib province from tens of thousands of extremist fighters, many foreign and most with militias affiliated with Al Qaeda, could cost countless civilian lives are fully justified.

Wars only cause death and destruction, and there has yet to be a war that did not do so.

Over the last two years, Syrian government forces have, with the help of their allies, principally Russia, been retaking the country's territory, sector by sector, to evict armed groups that had taken them over during the seven-year civil war.

In many cases the battles ended with agreements, in which members of the armed extremist groups and their families were given safe passage to Idlib, which borders Turkey.

Now that all the other areas have been cleared, the militants, often the most hardened and extreme like Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra, are concentrated in Idlib.

In addition to Syrian fighters, there are thousands of foreign fighters, from China, Central Asia, Tunisia and other countries, who were recruited by jihadist groups and assisted by regional powers as part of a sectarian war to topple the Syrian government.

These fighters are not likely to be welcomed back by their own governments. Nor are they likely to be given refuge by regional states, Europeans or Americans, who funded and armed their militias, often under the guise of assisting "moderate rebels".

It was, therefore, inevitable that the day would come that the Syrian government would seek to retake Idlib as well in what could be the last, but bloodiest, battle of the war.

Yet, as the Syrian military prepares for an assault on Idlib, warnings and threats of military action against Syria have descended from every direction, particularly from the United States and some European states.

President Bashar Assad was condemned in advance for preparing a chemical attack and was warned of dire consequences if he did so. Many reports spoke of an imminent gas or chemical attack by the Syrian army, even though such an attack would make no military or strategic sense from the point of view of the Syrian government.

Of course none of the claims were supported by any kind of evidence.

That, however, does not make the threats less ominous. Past experiences in the region, Iraq and Syria in particular, offer adequate precedent that evidence and pretexts can be invented to justify "humanitarian" wars that end up making matters much worse.

That said, of course the lives and safety of the millions of civilians in Idlib must be paramount and no one can rejoice at the prospect of an assault that could cause immense suffering.

However, it is important not to be carried away by the rhetoric. Of course, the Syrian military has not, and would never, admit to any plan to use chemical weapons, even if it had them. But given the dubiousness or lack of evidence related to previous claims, the accusations have to be treated with scepticism, since the armed groups in Idlib have an interest in trying to draw other powers, particularly the US, further into the war on their side.

Nor have the Syrian government and its allies excluded the possibility of a peaceful settlement for the Idlib region, as has happened in the other areas.

The question is what would happen in Idlib if the Syrian government were not able to liberate its land from the extremist groups. Would Idlib, practically bordering Europe, then remain a permanent base for Al Qaeda and the other terrorists gathered there from all over the world?

I find it extremely difficult to understand how and why such terrorists who shocked the world repeatedly with their indiscriminate and outrageous attacks on civilians, not just the 9/11 attacks in the US, but all across this region, would deserve protection under the guise of saving civilian lives.

Yes, the Syrian government and its allies must do everything to protect civilians, something that they have failed to do in many other cases, with horrific consequences. But international powers, instead of threatening Syria, should instead work to find a peaceful settlement, that includes ensuring the sources of financial support and weapons for the extremist groups concentrated in Idlib are stopped.

If there is no peaceful settlement and the issue is settled militarily, it will certainly cause massive tragedies. But it also gives rise to a number of questions.

Will Idlib be the first such tragedy?

What about Mosul, the city that was levelled to the ground when the Iraqi army, with massive support from all those who are now wringing their hands about an impending humanitarian tragedy in Idlib, moved to liberate the city from the so-called Islamic State (Daesh)?

The entire population of Mosul, which had suffered for three years under the most savage and cruel rule of Daesh, had to face even harsher tragedies while the US-backed war to liberate the city was in process.

Why was there so little humanitarian concern for the civilian suffering there and why was the Iraqi government not condemned for liberating its land?

The same can be said about Fallujah and Ramadi also in Iraq, and about Raqqa in Syria, which was also all but destroyed in a US-led attack to oust Daesh. Did the population of Raqqa not deserve the same humanitarian concern that is now pouring on Idlib?

The question answers itself and the purpose of asking it is not to justify one war by citing another. But taking into account the whole regional situation, it is difficult to take at face value the "humanitarian" concerns for Idlib.

Rather, it seems that the main motivation of the Western powers is to prevent Syria, and Russia, from gaining a victory in a war that from the start the US and its allies encouraged and fuelled.

Sadly, the Western "democracies" have a better record of starting wars than avoiding them and fostering peace. The case of Syria is no exception. Those outlaws and terrorists who took control of much of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, and indeed elsewhere in Africa, Asia and Europe, did not appear from nowhere.

They were created, trained, financed and armed by the same powers that are now battling them. The civilian populations of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen would never have faced so much devastation and tragedy had there been no foreign meddling in their affairs.

Everything must be done to avoid a military battle for Idlib, because that will always be the worst solution.

But that requires serious cooperation from those who continue to lend support to the outlaws in Idlib. That will be the best way to avoid even more suffering in a country that has already seen too much.

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