Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” and “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Five letters have offered Syrians fleeing the Bashar al-Assad regime a safe haven: Idlib.
An estimated 3 million people call the northern Syrian enclave home. It is the last remaining stronghold of the anti-Assad opposition. And more than half of those now in Idlib have fled their homes elsewhere in Syria as they try to escape the horror of a seven-year civil war that has extinguished the power of adjectives to describe its hell. There is no place else for civilians fleeing the regime to easily escape to safety.
For weeks, UN officials have warned that an anticipated Syrian regime offensive to retake Idlib province would ignite a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Turkey, which has backed anti-regime rebels, reinforced forces at the border and made clear it will not take in more than the 3 million Syrians already finding safety inside its border. Meanwhile, Syrian moms and dads prepared homemade gas masks in a desperate push to protect their children from possible regime use of chemical weapons against the rebels.
Also in Idlib: what the UN Special Envoy for Syria calls “an extremely high concentration of foreign fighters,” noting that “this amounted to approximately 10,000 Al Nusra or Al Qaeda members, who have been recognized as terrorists by the UN.”
Now comes the deal between Russia and Turkey to stave off the Idlib offensive, create a “demilitarized zone,” and separate jihadists from “moderate rebels.” At least, for now, those civilians who fled Assad remain safe.
The resolution shows what might be possible when US public and private diplomacy is at work. It offers a glint of hope that this is the quiet start of US efforts to stave off a further humanitarian crisis. It also raises the faint hope that Idlib could, eventually, lead to Geneva, a peace deal, and a lasting end to the carnage of the Syrian civil war.
It is a lot to hope for. But it is not impossible – if political will and diplomatic determination exist.
Indeed, the Idlib deal may be among the first signs that the new US envoy to Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, means to get serious about crafting US policy toward Syria. The former US ambassador to both Turkey and Iraq has come out of his thinktank world to take on the Syria portfolio and serve Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He has been traveling the region, visiting capitals – and talking Idlib. Last week, Jeffrey noted that “any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation.” Those words surely were translated into Russian.
As Syria observer and Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy senior fellow Hassan Hassan wrote on Twitter, “The US won’t get credit, but it’s actually played a central role in preventing the Idlib offensive for now. (Surely not a popular opinion for many). Just goes to show that the US can make a difference if there is a will.”
Indeed, Jeffrey is one of the few US officials who has earned rare praise from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said it was “an appropriate decision to appoint Jeffrey to the region.”
As Turkey’s Daily Sabah noted, the “US statements last week echoed Turkish concerns and put the two countries in an alignment against the Assad offensive. Some in Washington considered it as a first step to calibrate Turkish-American relations in order to reach a coherent Syria policy that can maintain a working relationship.”
Certainly, the US warnings against the Idlib offensive strengthened Turkey’s hand in dealing with Putin, noted the paper, even if few thought the Americans would actually follow through on the ground “as Putin had to consider possible US repercussions along with Turkish resistance.”
Down the road lies another step: build upon the glimmer of good will to strengthen US-Turkey ties and possibly even rely upon them to secure Turkey’s support for continuing US backing of the Syrian Kurds. The US has considered Syrian Kurds their reliable partners in the counter-ISIS fight, while Turkey has considered them terrorists. Russia has stepped in to fill this gap between the two and court Turkey. Maybe Jeffrey’s naming can make a difference here and, in the process, bring more assurances of security to northeast Syria.
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The US has, for years, exerted minimal influence in Syria, as Russia controlled facts on the ground and Iran expanded its influence and its footprint. The big question now is whether America is ready to use the diplomatic muscle at its disposal to help bring an end to the bloodshed. Or whether this moment will be just one more pause on the way to more calamity for those suffering through the carnage of a civil war with no end in sight.