Debate: Silence must not obscure the crimes committed in Syria’s Idlib province

In Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, on February 26, 2019: a man holds the body of his daughter, killed in a bombardment by pro-Assad forces. Anas Al-Dyab/AFP

“Why has the world given up?
Why is the world so terribly silent?
Why does nobody care about us? Why does no one stand in solidarity with us?
Are we worthless to them?
Are we just numbers?
What happened to the world?”

Listen to Fared’s message from Idlib province. We have heard the same message since the beginning of Bashar al-Assad’s war of extermination against his country’s own population. An invisible red line divides those of us who care, protest, name and shame our enemies, and those for whom crimes against humanity may fall into what Hannah Arendt called “holes of oblivion”.

Tragedy, all over again

The Western media reported extensively on the fall of Daesh in Baghuz but turned a blind eye to the tragedy of Idlib and the endless slaughter in Assad-dominated parts of Syria. They consider the victory of Assad regime an unavoidable accomplishment. As a former French ambassador to Syria noted:

“The battle against Mr. Baghdadi’s terrorist organisation has been the top priority for Western governments – at the expense of a true involvement in the Syrian issue more globally.”

Since March 2011, inaction has left a permanent stain on so-called free nations. Over the past month, we have witnessed the relentless shelling of civilians by the regime and Russia in Idlib province. The number of victims goes beyond 100, and includes many children. Once more, “White Helmet” rescuers and medical facilities are targeted. War crimes are perpetrated, and Western powers seem to consider it the new normal.

The conflict’s escalation was predictable. Moscow has not concealed its intention to help the Syrian regime recapture the whole of Syria, as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov openly announced. The question is not if, but when and how. In the short run, negotiations between Turkey and Russia will determine the fate of Idlib province, but it remains dubious whether Ankara has the willingness to be Idlib’s protector.

In the shadow of death

We knew that the Idlib region, where 2 million refugees arrived en mass from other parts of Syria, would be a precarious haven. Its habitants suffered exactions by the Islamists of Hay'at Tahrir al-Cham (HTS), which controls a major part of the region. They provide the regime and Russia with an excuse to intervene in the name of the “war of terror” that has long serve as a rhetorical cover for the regime’s crimes. Last Autumn, demonstrators in Idlib took to the streets against both Assad and HTS. The group is often suspected of being behind the murder of Raed al-Fares and Hamoud Junaid.

We can imagine the impact of unrelenting shelling on an area populated by more than 3 million people, including a million children, with no place to escape. It could foreshadow the worst tragedy for civilians in this eight-year war. 80% of those civilians are on Damascus’ wanted list and doomed to be tortured and murdered by the regime. And what would be the fate of the civilians released after the fall of Baghuz? They would have escaped the hell of the Caliphate to fall into Assad’s hands.

The West must save the people of Idlib and all Syrians from Assad’s grip. Stopping the regime and Russia in Idlib is our last chance. Failing to act would mark a resounding failure for the free world. For the past eight years, we have shown no will to protect civilians and put an end to the murder of more than 500,000 people. We have decided to give a tacit approval to endless crimes against humanity. We hide our cowardice behind empty words such as “powerlessness”, or, more obscenely, “realism” and “complexity”. Will we continue to give a murderer a free pass? Will we let him free to commit more war crimes? Will we again strengthen Putin’s Russia, the sworn enemy of international law who is bent on destroying a world order structured around justice and freedom? Will we forever conceal our moral shallowness behind so-called diplomacy, empty resolutions and ineffectual condemnations? Will we let treachery and lies prevail?

If so, what would be Europe’s legitimacy in claiming to stand for freedom and the rule of law? Obviously, taking action now would be more challenging than in 2013 and 2016. The withdrawal of US troops from Syria, although not complete, will not make matters easier. It highlights the Trump administration’s lack of resolve to bring about a political transition. The State Department was right to condemn the attacks, but condemnation alone doesn’t herald a willingness to act. The European divide on Syria is another obstacle.

Turkey’s unpredictability and the propensity of some Gulf states to whitewash Assad’s crimes by reopening their embassies to Damascus have undermined potential alliances.

We can still take action – hence we must

France and the EU still have the capability to act. It is part of our effort to enforce international law, notably humanitarian law, as well as the responsibility to protect (R2P). The scale of the crimes against humanity and war crimes calls for more than mere condemnation. Europe and allied nations cannot separate their stance on Syria from the Russian regime’s multi-faceted efforts at destabilisation. Syria and Ukraine are two levers used by Moscow to destroy the international order. We cannot separate our policy toward Idlib from our attachment to international justice, the quest for a political transition, humanitarian access and the unconditional release of all political prisoners.

France and the EU must weigh on the composition of the constitutional committee in charge of the political transition that the Astana group, in which cracks seem to be forming, is not to lead. Though possible only in a distant future, free elections in Syria under international supervision should include everyone, notably refugees and IDPs. The UN’s previous special envoy, Steffan de Mistura, failed and the present one, Geir Pedersen, still doesn’t seem to fully grasp Russian tricks and hasn’t demanded the release of political prisoners. This makes the involvement of France and the EU even more necessary, although diplomacy won’t be enough.

They must be firm in demanding that Assad not be part of the political transition. If his clan were to remain in power, massacres in the regime’s prisons would endure. Any assistance to reconstruction with Assad ruling over Syria must be ruled out.

Neither the 5.6 million refugees nor the 6.2 million internally displaced can safely come home. Damascus’ new property law, which legalizes the seizure of their possessions, makes it also impossible. This unambiguous statement is a compelling reason for Europe and Middle Eastern countries to put in place an effective asylum policy. They must continue to seek justice for Syria, find all the legal means of prosecuting criminals and condition any transition process to the release of political prisoners.

Assad has not won the war

Our position must be bolstered by a clear narratives from European leaders to counter the regime’s propaganda. It is misleading to declare that Assad has won the war. Approximately 30% of the country is not under his control. Even in regime-controlled-areas, some Syrians, braving danger, continue to demonstrate. Let’s also put to rest once for all the misguided notion that authoritarian regimes are somehow stable. To the contrary, they bear the seeds of tomorrow’s revolutions.

  • We must never recognise the regime and pressure Arab countries into avoiding that trap.

  • We ought not to delude ourselves as to Assad’s alliances: the government, Russia, and Iran form a block. In spite of certain diverging views, it would be a strategic mistake to seek to divide the block and pit them against each other, as attempted by Israel’s Prime Minister. Assad is still holding his own only because his foreign proponents won’t let him down.

  • From an operative standpoint, whatever our criticisms of the Gulf monarchies, we must rebuild alliances on the Syrian issue. It is the most difficult and risky task, but we have no choice.

  • Lastly, we should do everything possible to make the creation of a safe zone around Idlib province a priority. Giving in would offer the regime and Russia an ideological and strategic victory with far-reaching consequences for world security. If we are not able to enforce this safe zone, how could we ever organise free elections in Syria under international scrutiny?

Far from the gaze of international news organisations

Much will depend of the ability of the democratic Syrian opposition to produce a new generation of united leaders, from among those who ran such great risks by taking part in anti-regime protests. Western countries cannot be the driving force in this, but could help the lead players of a future transition get organised.

A veil is yet again descending over Syria. Behind closed fences, Assad detains and murders. Only a few brave citizens-journalists dare to raise the alert, but their voices are seldom heard by the public and political leaders. He has released Daesh terrorists who assist him in eliminating non-Islamist opponents, and against whom he never really fought.

Soon there could be no more voice out of Syria and silence gradually covers the cries of the victims. Our cowardly conscience might be eased, and the embarrassment caused by our betrayal might dissipate, but the world would be left less safe. Such would be our legacy.

This article was originally published in French