How Europe should respond to the assault on Idlib
A horrific humanitarian crisis is unfolding on Europe’s doorstep and Europeans are nowhere to be seen.
The Syrian and Russian governments’ military onslaught on Idlib has pushed 1 million Syrians towards the Turkish border and killed up to 300 more. But it is not only a moral outrage. It also has a direct impact on European interests, raising the prospect of new refugee flows and extremist mobilisation. Continued escalation also risks spiralling into a dangerous confrontation between Turkey, whose forces support the rebels, and Russia.
The truth is that the assault on Idlib has been a long time coming and Europeans should have been prepared for it. Yet – as they have far too often during the long and tragic Syrian civil war – Europeans find themselves at the margins of unfolding developments.
There are no easy solutions to the crisis and, ultimately, the situation on the ground is likely to be settled between Turkey and Russia rather than under the auspices of Western countries or the United Nations. It is almost inevitable that Damascus will regain control over much of Idlib.
But Europeans need not settle for their current state of helplessness. They could still do much more to avert further tragedy.
While Europeans have claimed the moral high ground in recent weeks, seeking to pressure Russia to change course, it should be clear by now that Moscow does not respond to public shaming. Europeans urgently need to engage in high-level efforts to encourage the only outcome that can alleviate the situation and help Syrian civilians: a Turkish-Russian deal. A proposal for a meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Emmanuel Macron, as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel, on 5 March – following a recent call between Putin, Macron, and Merkel – suggests that France and Germany have stepped up their engagement with the crisis. But Syrian civilians cannot afford to wait two more weeks for a solution – and there is little to indicate that the parties are converging on a plan to end the violence.
While Europeans have claimed the moral high ground in recent weeks, seeking to pressure Russia to change course, it should be clear by now that Moscow does not respond to public shaming
Beyond this, Europeans must urgently increase their humanitarian support for refugees seeking shelter along the Turkish border in horrific winter conditions.
Essentially, there are now two options left to try and avoid the worst-case outcome – what the UN has called an impending “bloodbath”.
The first, Turkey’s current approach, involves sending troops into Idlib to push back against the offensive. But the likelihood is that Ankara, which has already lost at least 15 soldiers in the fight, will fail in the operation without wider international support. Russia has shown no willingness to halt its military advance or lessen its ambitions in the face of Turkey’s intervention.
And one needs to be honest: no one in Europe or the United States is prepared to risk conflict with Russia by starting down this path, especially when Turkey is also allied with extremist fighters on the ground. Indeed, US Special Representative for Syria Jim Jeffrey’s support for Turkey’s decision to take the fight to Russia – despite President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to back the move – is highly dubious, echoing similar promises US officials made to the Kurds. Even as Jeffrey was in Ankara rallying behind the Turkish position, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien was publicly stating that the US would not step in.
A typically European variant of this approach involves imposing wider costs on Russia through sanctions. But, while punitive measures may make Europeans feel good, they will not help civilians on the ground. Russia’s recent escalation – in the assault on Idlib, and in blocking cross-border UN aid channels – came partly in response to the passage of the US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. This dramatically tightens US sanctions on Syria and imposes secondary sanctions on entities that do business with the country, such as Russian companies. Further punitive measures are highly unlikely to change Moscow’s calculus, as opposed to pushing it to double down on its current approach.
In these circumstances, the only viable option left in Idlib is to incentivise a deal between Turkey and Russia that ends the military onslaught. This deal will inevitably formalise significant regime advances, including control of two key strategic motorways that cut across Idlib. But it could end the bombing and preserve wider space for Syrian rebels than the narrow strip of border territory that Russia is currently offering Turkey.
Rather than waiting for the 5 March summit, Europeans need to now focus their energy on such an agreement, partly by offering incentives to Russia. The regime may want to restore control over all of Syria, but a European offer that, for instance, tied a degree of sectoral sanctions relief to a ceasefire and, critically, a willingness to enter into a long-term negotiated outcome over the fate of the province – to ensure the ceasefire will hold – might help change its calculations. While Moscow has never positively responded to punitive sanctions, it remains uncertain whether a positive incentive might have a different impact. It is an offer that is at least worth testing. Any political arrangement will likely involve recognition of government sovereignty over Idlib, but would aim to preserve space for local actors.
While many will dismiss the value of any form of diplomatic track or agreement with Moscow and Damascus, the alternatives are worse. Ultimately, this is not a pretty approach, but it could save lives – and Europe can reverse any of its steps if progress stalls. The parties to the conflict will need to find a way for the opposition in Idlib to live alongside the regime, including by addressing the extremists in their midst – an area in which Europeans will need to assume some responsibility. But that is for another day. Right now, Europeans’ priority must be to end the brutal violence raining down on the province. Syrians living in Idlib deserve as much. For nine long years, they have been failed by all sides – a scenario that is now repeating itself in the most horrific of circumstances.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.