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This shoddy Idlib ceasefire won’t end the war – or the suffering of Syrians

Opinion | 2020-03-07 17:34:00
This shoddy Idlib ceasefire won’t end the war – or the suffering of Syrians
This deal stitched up between Russia and Turkey reinforces Putin’s grip and Erdoğan’s position as Moscow’s man in Nato

he ceasefire in Idlib is, like many previous Syrian truces, unlikely to hold. It will not stop the suffering of hundreds of thousands of displaced and terrified people who remain cut off from adequate humanitarian relief and medical aid. It will not solve the refugee crisis on Europe’s borders, nor will it bring justice to victims of numerous atrocious war crimes.

This shoddy backroom deal, a stitch-up between the authoritarian leaders of Russia and Turkey, does not end the war. It does not affect the Syrian regime’s determination to retake control of “every inch” of the last rebel-held province, by whatever means. This bloody denouement has merely been postponed.

What the ceasefire pact does do is further reinforce the grip of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, whose power to dispense life and death in Syria on a whim now goes unchallenged by the west. It effectively recognises territorial gains made by Syrian and Russian forces in three months of murderous, criminal attacks on Idlib’s people.

The ceasefire also gets Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, off the hook after at least 60 Turkish soldiers died last month in fighting with Syrian and Russian forces. As was the case last autumn, when Turkish forces invaded Kurdish areas of north-east Syria then let the Russians in, hapless Erdoğan has again advanced Moscow’s objectives.

Putin has successfully encouraged Erdoğan to believe he can use a tilt to Russia as leverage against western partners critical of his Kurdish vendetta, support for Islamist extremists, and human rights abuses. Erdoğan’s weaponising of the Syrian refugee problem to pressure and disrupt the EU is another tactic approved in Moscow.

All this furthers Putin’s broader aim of weakening Nato and dividing the western democracies that, post-Crimea and the imposition of sanctions on Moscow, remain his main geopolitical target.
Looked at in this wider context, the deal confirms Erdoğan’s role as Russia’s inside man in Nato. The Turkish leader may think he’s a strategic genius, playing power politics on the world stage. In truth, he’s little more than Putin’s useful idiot.

A stronger, less-compromised US president would have knocked Erdoğan back into line long ago. Instead, Donald Trump flapped and postured while Putin drew Erdoğan into energy deals, sold him an anti-aircraft system that could compromise Nato defences, and masqueraded as his only friend after coup plotters nearly dislodged him in 2016.

It’s plain that Trump will not stand up to Putin on Syria or anything else. On the contrary, he appears happy to accept Russian subversion, already under way according to US intelligence chiefs, if it helps his re-election. Trump finds in Putin a kindred spirit – vicious, unprincipled and corrupt. Maybe a Biden presidency will be different. But January will be too late for many Syrians. So who now will confront Putin and his tame Turkish sidekick?

European parliamentarians, including British MPs, last week demanded that EU and Nato governments impose punitive sanctions if Russia (and Syria, Turkey and Iran) do not cooperate with a new multilateral push to protect Syrian civilians, tackle extremism, and enforce international humanitarian law.

The appeal coincided with the latest report from the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which for the first time formally accused Russia of war crimes, including “indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas”.

Despite this, European leadership on the Syrian crisis remains woefully lacking, as it has been for the past nine years.

The EU has promised assistance to Greece in handling Syrian refugees approaching its frontiers from Turkey. Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, tweeted last week that “our first priority” was maintaining order on Europe’s borders.

Given the scale of the emergency, Europe’s “first priority” should surely be saving lives, followed by bloc-wide resettlement quotas – something the EU has failed to agree since the last big refugee crisis in 2015.

Countries such as Finland have offered refuge to limited numbers of the displaced. Yet for all its talk about human rights, the EU as a whole has turned a blind eye to violent treatment of migrants by Greek border forces. Instead, it wants the recalcitrant Erdoğan to reinstate the flawed 2016 migration pact he jettisoned last weekend.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s much-weakened chancellor, continues to talk vaguely about creating “safety zones” in northern Syria. France has been making noises, too. But there is no appetite for intervention on the ground, with or without a UN mandate. Putin, meanwhile, has ignored Merkel’s call for a four-way summit with France and Turkey.

Britain, too, is keeping a safe distance. Speaking in Ankara last week, foreign secretary Dominic Raab sidestepped a question about support for a no-fly zone, saying only that the idea merited “close examination”. That’s no use to the thousands still freezing and hungry on Idlib’s hillsides. Raab was more concerned to stress Britain’s close relationship with Turkey – and its hopes for a free trade agreement this year. Oblivious to

Erdoğan’s tilt to Moscow, or possibly trying to counter it with gross flattery, Raab described Turkey as an “irreplaceable partner”.

Where, meanwhile, are the Arab states that claimed to care so much about Syria’s future after the 2011 uprising that they poured money and arms into the hands of rebels and Islamist extremists? They have turned their backs on a catastrophe they helped create. Where is the UN security council? Hobbled by Russian vetoes and American ambivalence.

Buck-passing, political cowardice, cynical calculation and compassion fatigue are the ugly measures by which the Syrian war, if it ever ends, will be remembered. Amid the silence following this latest ceasefire, perhaps the cries of victims will be heard more clearly.

The Guardian, Simon Tisdall
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