Syrian rebel fighters in Idlib are preparing for an offensive by government forces (AFP Photo/OMAR HAJ KADOUR)

The Idlib province in northern Syria is in news. President Bashar Al Assad and his Russian backers want to take the last remaining enclave of resistance. Already, the regime has launched dozens of air strikes, which have killed civilians. A Monday agreement between Russia and Turkey appears to create a safe zone in Idlib — but only in the rather unlikely event that it holds, and even then only in a limited geographic space, for a modest fraction of the region’s population.

The United States must take a stand. It can’t reverse the course of the war, but it can at least take action to ensure that the people of Idlib are spared the worst — even if this entails some unpalatable moral compromises. Assertive deterrence by the US and its partners is essential. To be effective, however, deterrence should be linked to a diplomatic strategy that will require difficult trade-offs.

Washington should start by vowing to retaliate in the event of any indiscriminate use of violence by Al Assad against his own people, in a manner of our choosing. This could be done without dramatically escalating US involvement in the war. For example, a helicopter seen to be barrel-bombing an apartment building could later be destroyed by a long-range surface-to-air missile once back at its base. The Trump administration has rightly threatened to respond if Al Assad uses chemical weapons in his planned campaign. While commendable, this ignores that conventional weapons — artillery, air strikes, barrel bombings — account for something like 99 per cent of all casualties. International prohibitions against genocide, and the laws of war under Geneva Conventions, could be invoked to justify the response.

Such a threat by the US will have to be embedded within a broader political and military framework for how it could contribute to winding down the violence and ending the war. This strategy will prioritise removing former Al Qaida and Daesh elements who have infiltrated the more moderate opposition forces and civilian populations in Idlib. They need to go. Working with Turkey, local moderate opposition forces and perhaps even Russia, the West needs to commit to this task — not with US ground forces in any large numbers, but with the combination of intelligence, air power, Special Operations raids and collaboration with partners that has worked against the Daesh in the country’s east. It will take time. But it must be done.

Meanwhile, we need to offer Al Assad a hard-headed bargain. One part of the deal he won’t like: Idlib province, as well as small pockets in the south and the large Kurdish-majority areas to the country’s northeast, would remain autonomous from Damascus for the foreseeable future (and we would continue to threaten retaliation against any regime helicopters, other planes and large ground weapons used in these places). The international community will also help these regions rebuild and establish forms of self-governance. The end goal of this strategy is not partition, but to lay the groundwork for decentralised governance in a unified Syria in the future.

The other part of the deal will appeal far more to Al Assad, and to his Russian and Iranian sponsors. In areas of the country where the government is now in control, the US will tolerate Al Assad’s rule for the foreseeable future and bring the United Nations-convened talks in Geneva designed to replace him to a long-overdue close.

To be sure, this mass murderer ultimately has to go for the country to have any hope of future stability. Any political transition in Syria will, however, have to be a managed one that allows Al Assad and regime loyalists some say in choosing his successor. Otherwise, he and his supporters will fear retaliation by a future government bent on revenge. US should withhold reconstruction aid for the regions of Syria that Al Assad controls until he is gone. As much as this approach may insult democratic mores, it is the only realistic option for the foreseeable future, given Syrian realities today.

This new approach gives Al Assad a choice. He can destroy much of Idlib, risk retaliation from Washington and key European Union member-states that could ultimately jeopardise his military strength, further polarise the country, further delegitimise his own hold on power and guarantee that Syria will have little outside help in rebuilding itself. Or he can allow Turkey, backed by the US and others, to take the lead in Idlib for the foreseeable future, while staying in power for the time being — and, more to the point, ultimately passing control to a chosen successor. From a US perspective, one has to hold one’s nose to contemplate striking such an unpalatable deal with Al Assad. But the path we are on now is much worse.

— Washington Post

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Steven Heydemann is a professor at Smith College, Massachusetts.