Syrians check the wreckage at a site in Hass town after an airstrike by pro-regime forces on the south of Idlib province on September 8, 2018. Image Credit: AFP

The Syrian opposition and its foreign state backers are naturally frustrated. Seven years of war that took the lives of an estimated 400,000 and turned ancient cities into rubble achieved nothing except death and destruction. That is far from being the desired outcome, but it is the harsh reality. Obama’s retreat from his own red line set the stage for Russia’s entry just as the regime was losing ground to the Free Syrian Army.

Russia, Iran and its proxies are succeeding in re-establishing the political status quo. The Bashar Al Assad regime has recouped most of the country with the exception of Idlib province where 70,000 rebel fighters and 10,000 hard-core terrorists mingle among 2.5 million civilians.

Last week’s negotiations between Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to save innocent lives within this last rebel stronghold collapsed. Now the world holds its breath, awaiting yet another bloodbath as Syria and Russia get ready to launch a major assault. “Slaughter in Idlib would make the United States very angry,” threatens President Donald Trump.

The United Nation’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warns of a humanitarian catastrophe. “Efforts to combat terrorism do not supersede obligations under international law, in the moral conscience of humanity,” he said.

The British Ambassador to the UN Karen Pierce highlighted the fact that “there are more babies in Idlib than terrorists” while warning Syrian generals that they will be held accountable in the event of mass slaughter. That is an empty premise. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court and Russia would prevent a UN Security Council referral with its power of veto.

The US and Britain are taking the moral high ground. Nobody wants to see more dead women, children and babies. Yet, one cannot help thinking the concern being shown by the US and Britain for human life is self-serving when some 15,000 Iraqis were killed during the first days of the 2003 invasion and, more recently, US strikes on Raqqa killed hundreds and wounded thousands. Furthermore, the Trump administration has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s bombing of the Kurdish controlled Afrin and Manbij to obliterate America’s Kurdish partners against Daesh.

All concerned in this ongoing mess harbour their own agendas. There are no do-gooders. The US is desperate to prove its muscle. Russia wants to establish its presence in the Middle East. Iran is out to establish long-term bases in Syria. Turkey has an ideological bent towards Islamists and fears another influx of refugees. As for the Syrian regime, its prime goal is to regain control of every inch of the country.

In effect, Syria has been used and abused as a proxy battlefield between big powers. Neither side has given much thought to the Syrian people’s well-being; their priority is to win at all costs. Those that have fled bombs and terrorists are not welcome in Europe. Indeed, their presence has fuelled the rise of right-wing parties in various European countries. None of the foreign state actors are asking the Syrian people what they want. Do they even care?

Turkey hosts more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, a third live in camps. There are 1.4 million registered in Jordan and one million in Lebanon, representing a quarter of the population. They should be permitted to return home to rebuild their war-torn country and resume their lives!

So what should be done about Idlib? Should Al Qaida-affiliated terrorists be permitted to plot and plan in a protected enclave on sovereign Syrian territory ad infinitum? Would any other nation allow that on their soil? Humanitarian corridors leading to regime-controlled areas are available for civilians, but those sympathetic to opposition forces fear repercussions. Syria and Russia should encourage their exit with ironclad guarantees for their safety.

The Trump administration may be positioning to take military action. Syria is being accused of preparing chemical weapons attacks, which will incur a US/British/French response. Russia accuses Syrian rebels in collusion with the White Helmets of preparing a false-flag chemical attack. Which side is being honest? Take your pick!

There is no good outcome whatever happens over the next days and weeks. There is only bad and worse. However, I am convinced that the sooner the Syrian people can find peace and security on their own soil the better. That said, once Idlib is taken, the road ahead has boulders. Iranian, Turkish and US forces should withdraw. A process of forgiveness and reconciliation should be instituted to make way for elections. The question is: Can they be free and fair?

Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.