The Assad regime with Russian and Iranian support announced this weekend its new offensive in Greater Idlib – a movement that could become the most catastrophic humanitarian disaster yet in Syria. For the past few years the regime has reclaimed territory all over the country and cut deals to allow opposition forces safe passage to Idlib, where they are now all based. But with nowhere for them to go this is likely to be a fight to the death with massive humanitarian implications.
As the situation stands now, the United States is trying to convince Turkey to stand its ground in Idlib in order to revive the Geneva negotiating process and leverage the U.S. and Turkish zones of control in Syria to apply long-term pressure on Russia and Iran and eventually force Assad from power. This plan will not survive if Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies launch a successful campaign against Idlib.
However, stopping the Assad's campaign on Idlib is not enough because the awful truth is that Idlib has become, per U.S. Counter-ISIL Envoy Brett McGurk, "the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11." The United States has an interest in removing al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers from Idlib, and that interest is not best served by a highly destructive offensive launched by Assad that would lead to the single worst humanitarian crisis in an already horrible war. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing toward Turkey will not help root out al-Qaeda from Northwest Syria. It could also result in a restart of major refugee flows from Syria into Europe.
The Trump team should continue to provide diplomatic top cover to allow Turkey to strike a deal with Russia that will keep Idlib under Turkish administration, and then support Turkey in working with its local Syrian rebel proxies to take on and remove al-Qaeda and allied organizations from northwest Syria.
Ilan Goldenberg is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)
Nicholas Heras is a Fellow in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).