The final rebel holdout against the Assad regime in Syria is in Idlib province. Confrontation is inevitable as both Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies are looking to wrap things up in the country’s civil war, and it does not take a military genius to know that the final attack will be ferocious.
The handbook for beating a civilian population into submission developed by Assad and the Kremlin in particular is already well understood. First encircle the target area and block all traffic of food. Then, bomb hospitals to ensure insufficient medical facilities when casualties start mounting up.
Last, use munitions with the highest psychological impact, such as cluster bombs and chemical weapons to break the targets into surrendering. In case you were not certain, yes, all three of these tactics are explicit war crimes.
What used to happen until now, however, is that the propaganda offensive by the Russian information warfare machine to obfuscate and confuse the evidence for war crimes committed by Assad and the Kremlin started either as during the acts themselves, or immediately after. But this is now changing, and the Kremlin has moved onto the next logical evolution of its propaganda capabilities: pre-emptive misinformation.
Kremlin-backed “media” channels have started pushing the narrative that the rebels in Idlib province are acquiring and planning to use chemical weapons. This does two things: 1) it supposedly gives Assad and Putin cause and urgency to step up their offensive against the rebels in Idlib; and 2) if chemical weapons were to be deployed, well this time “we know” that it was the rebels who had such weapons on hand.
Translation: an all-out Assad-Russian assault on Idlib is imminent and it will be utter bloodbath, complete with liberal deployment of chemical weapons and any other illegal weapons and munitions against civilian targets deemed necessary to shatter the psyche of the local population.
There are still plenty of conflicts to be fought if Assad wants to reassert Syrian national integrity, and if Russia and Iran are willing and able to continue helping him fight his civil war
Identifiable state actors
Under normal circumstances, such advance warning of intent to commit war crimes by clearly identifiable state actors would be useful in formulating a response from the international community, which might prevent such an attack, or at least mitigate it to some extent.
But we do not live in normal time. The incumbent administration in the United States have no personal moral interest in humanitarian concerns, either around the globe or indeed in their own country.
China does not get involved in these kinds of disputes as matter of policy, and the rest of Western Europe has neither the leadership, nor the will, to risk direct confrontation with Russia in order to prevent civilian massacres in Syria.
The aftermath of this assault is equally predictable. Tens to hundreds of thousands dead, horrific pictures on the news, a new wave of refugees heading toward Europe, and the tacit acceptance by the West that the situation is what it is, and nothing can be done about it now – “at least Assad is not ISIS”, is what they will be telling themselves.
Will this finally bring peace and some measure of stability to the region? That is not quite so clear.
While the Sunni-Arab Syrian opposition will have been finished off, Turkey still operates in the Syrian theatre, and a fact that is widely obscured from the reporting on Syria, the regions of Afrin, Jazira and Euphrates continue to be administered by the de facto autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a multi-ethnic quasi-state dominated by anti-Assad Kurds.
There are still plenty of conflicts to be fought if Assad wants to reassert Syrian national integrity, and if Russia and Iran are willing and able to continue helping him fight his civil war. Keep an eye out on Russian propaganda channels for mentions of the Kurds in Syria.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.
Originally published in Al Arabiya