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Sam Hamad

In Syria, Russia is using acts of peace to prepare for war

Russia still has its eye firmly fixed on the last remaining 'liberated' province [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 18 September, 2018

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Comment: Russia's commitment to the 'buffer zone' in Idlib has little to do with any genuine will to avoid humanitarian catastrophe, writes Sam Hamad.
Given the extremely precarious situation facing the people of liberated Idlib, the recent Turkish-Russian deal for a 'buffer zone' between pro-regime forces and the rebels might provide some breathing space.  

But, as ever in Syria, do not think security for Syrians will be indefinite.  

In fact, almost every instance of the conquest of liberated areas of Syria by Assad-Iran-Russia, has involved or been preceded by an alleged act of 'peace'. It was under the guise of a 'de-escalation' zone that Assad-Iran-Russia viciously bombed, cleansed and eventually conquered liberated Daraa.  

The same was true in the liberated areas of northern Homs, another area covered by 'de-escalation' zones agreed to by Russia. An identical process unfolds: The savage bombing and/or besiegement of civilian areas, prompting the deliberate but 'informal' cleansing of civilian populations, coupled with a ground offensive by Iranian-led forces to seal the conquest and force more people to flee. Then come the formal 'evacuations', a code word for the formal cleansing of civilian populations in liberated areas.

The world stood by and watched just a few months ago as this brutal process played out in East Ghouta, another area covered by a Russian 'de-escalation' zone. If the pattern of Russia's superficial commitment to 'de-escalation' zones isn't yet apparent, some of the worst violence from Russia and Assad unleashed on the people of East Ghouta - including the use of poison gas in Douma - occurred during a 30 day UN-ceasefire.  

It hardly takes a cynic to imagine that Russia's commitment to the 'buffer zone in Idlib has little to do with any genuine will to avoid humanitarian catastrophe. Russia still has its eye firmly fixed on the last remaining liberated province.

Almost every instance of the conquest of liberated areas of Syria by Assad-Iran-Russia, has involved or been preceded by an alleged act of 'peace'

Russia will never agree to a permanent peace agreement with any rebel force for many reasons, one of which is its commitment, shared by Assad, of returning Syria to the ante bellum status quo. This 'buffer zone' in no way resolves Assad, Iran and Russia's previous enthusiasms to annihilate the 'terrorists'.

The other reason is the strategic value of Idlib to Russia.  

Everyone, the three million people who have made their homes in the province included, know that there is nowhere left in Syria for them to run if Assad-Iran-Russia move for Idlib. If the Assad axis were to launch a full scale attack on the province, going by the process of its usual genocidal conquests as described above, the humanitarian crisis would be unprecedented.

The quantity of refugees that would flood into Turkey would be larger than any other single cleansing since the war began. For Russia, this is perhaps the most important element regarding how Idlib fits into its grand strategic designs.

Russia has long been observed to weaponise Syrian refugees against Europe. Over two years ago, General Phil Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander for NATO in Europe, made a statement to the US Senate Armed Services Committee regarding Russia and Assad's methodology of warfare in Syria. Breedlove noted that the kind of weapons used, such as barrel bombs, and the targets of such weaponry, served no other purpose than that of terror - to create refugees.

He told the Senate that this was part of a larger strategy to "make [refugees] a problem for someone else". Breedlove continued that, "Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve."

Russia knows sooner or later that this 'buffer zone' deal will crumble as Turkey remains isolated

Russia essentially stoked the last so-called 'refugee crisis'. Though it had been building up for some time, the situation reached a tipping point only after Russia's intervention.

And while European racism exists as a terrifyingly self-destructive force despite Russia, Putin's tactic of forming proxy relationships with European fascist groups has meant Russia has been able to exploit the racist reaction to the refugee crisis.

We're still living with the consequences of the last crisis. All around Europe, whether in Germany, Poland, Italy, Austria or, most recently, Sweden, we see the rise of far-right anti-immigrant groups forming governments or becoming major electoral and parliamentary forces.

Even something as parochial as Brexit was typified by the Leave campaign's attempts to exploit the refugee crisis. May of these forces and events are not just united by Islamophobia and anti-immigration politics, but they also have close relations with Putin's Russia.  

Russia doesn't just want European infrastructure and institutions to be 'overwhelmed'; it wants Europe to become entirely dysfunctional. Putin wants a Europe that is either completely politically divided, with weak governments, or, he wants far-right ideological forces that will be more compliant with Russia's interests to take power.

We saw this most recently with the far-right/populist government in Italy, elected on an overtly anti-refugee/anti-immigration ticket, excluding itself from sanctions on Russia for its attack on the sovereignty of Ukraine. This is just one example of how Putin is shaping Europe in his own image.  

Imagine, then, what the consequences of another refugee crisis caused by an assault on Idlib would be. Given the status quo in Europe of toothless, triangulating centrists - as well as the largely pro-Putin left - and ravenous, Putin-supporting right-wing populists, this may well herald another nail in the coffin of post-war liberalism in Europe.

All of this will be firmly in the mind of Putin when he assess the inevitable assault on Idlib. The only spanner in the works is Turkey.

While Turkey has taken in more refugees than every European country combined many times over, it understands that it has a limit. And it clearly does not think it could deal with the volume of refugees that would emerge out of Idlib should the province face a military assault; hence its 
primary role in trying to stop a 'bloodbath' in Idlib. 

This is what perhaps differentiates this current 'peace deal' from others - the fact that Turkey has put its money where its mouth is. Unlike in other 'de-escalation zones' - such as Eastern Ghouta - that ended up brutally conquered by Assad-Iran-Russia and that were far away from Turkey, Turkish forces have actually entered the province and have been bolstering their military checkpoints, designed to make sure 'de-escalation' is actually enforced.

The three million people who have made their homes in the province know that there is nowhere left in Syria for them to run

This, for sure, represents a conundrum for Putin. For any attack on Idlib would now be an attack on Turkey, and Turkey has said in no uncertain terms, that it would consider any attack on its forces positioned on Idlib to be an act of war. Russia will not risk this.

But it knows that Turkey is just one country.   

It also knows very well that Turkey has no other allies willing to commit forces to protect Idlib. Part of Russia's stipulations in agreeing to the deal entail the veritable disarmament of the rebels, while it's unclear if this covers Idlib City. Russia knows sooner or later that this 'buffer zone' deal will crumble as Turkey remains isolated. Turkey has appealed to the world, to its so-called allies, for help, but no help has been forthcoming.  

Every day where Idlib remains free from Russia and Assad's barbaric attacks is precious, but given Russia's history of using acts of peace as mere preparations for war, it seems unlikely that Idlib will escape the fate of the rest of Syria.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.  

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