Idlib is the site of Syria’s largest displacement crisis since the conflict began nine years ago, with nearly one million displaced in the province. As the Assad regime continues to reclaim Idlib, USIP’s Mona Yacoubian looks at the future for Syria, saying “the fact of the matter is that Syrians are terrified to live under Assad’s rule.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


(Audio Recording)

Tim Farley: President Obama is no longer president, Hillary Clinton, no longer the Secretary of State. Jay Carney is no longer the White House Press Secretary, James Clapper, no longer the Director of National Intelligence, but Bashar al-Assad is still in charge in Syria and now things are even more complicated than they were in 2011, which was nine years ago this week, marking the anniversary of the conflict, which began as part of the Arab Spring and Russia and Turkey are intimately involved. There's a refugee issue. There's obviously the military issue and so many other things that we need to be concerned about, so to make sense of it all. Mona Yacoubian is with us, senior policy scholar for the U.S. Institute of Peace tweeting @myacoubian and Mona, welcome back. Thank you for being here today.

Mona Yacoubian: Thanks so much for having me.

Tim Farley: Mona, it seems that Assad's days are still numbered, but the question is how, how big that number is and the latest obviously, is seemingly, is a much more escalated tension between Russia and Turkey over portions of Syria. Give us your sense of where things are on the ground right now.

Mona Yacoubian: Well, I think what we're seeing is most recently a very brutal offensive undertaken by the Assad regime, but backed by Russia, in the air and this really marks the last rebel stronghold in Western Syria that Assad is attempting to retake. He is vowed to retake every square mile of his country back. And what this has done though is prompted massive displacement, the largest displacement crisis since the conflict began. Now, as you note nine years ago, and that has then brought Turkey involved because Turkey borders Syria at this governate of Idlib and Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees. They cannot afford to admit any more refugees. So, you now have a situation of what had been a fairly brutal offensive by the regime, the Assad regime, that then ended up raising tensions fairly significantly between Russia and Turkey.

Tim Farley: Can you help us understand better the support of Russia? I mean, you have to wonder what keeps Assad in power and we say, well, Russia supports, how do they support and what does that support mean in terms of being able to keep Bashar al-Assad in power?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, I think Russian support has been essential for Assad to stay in power. There was the notion early in the conflict that Assad's days were numbered. But as you have noted, here we are nine years later, he's still in power and that's due in large part to Russia support. The Russians became involved in Syria in 2015 and they really turned the tide of the war in favor of Assad. They brought in fairly massive military power, air power. And that's really been critical in terms of Assad not only holding onto power, but actually regaining large portions of territory.

Tim Farley: And why is it in Russia's interest to help Syria?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, the Russians have been very clear that they are opposed to the notion of any sort of regime change. They, they were opposed to what happened in Libya. The sort of the, the no-fly zone that was established by the U.N. Security Council, which eventually it was done to protect civilians, but eventually led to Gaddafi falling from power. And when that happened, when that happened, the Russians said never again. We're not going to stand by and watch regimes fall. Of course, they're concerned about their own regime and their own hold on power. And so, this has made Russia a staunch supporter of Bashar al-Assad.

Tim Farley: Once again, Mona Yacoubian with us, senior policy scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. So now we have Russia and Turkey in some ways at odds, although it is seemingly calmed down a bit, but still the complication there is Turkey is a member of the NATO Alliance. And as a member of the Alliance, one would think the U.S. would be obligated in some way to support Turkey if it got into a physical, a military conflict with Russia. I'm not sure what the qualifications are for that, but talk about that aspect of this, this entire complex situation that is the relationship between Turkey and Russia right now.

Mona Yacoubian: Right. So, Turkey and Russia had figured out a way to, to negotiate what was called the de-escalation zone in Idlib to ensure against any fighting taking place there, that de-escalation agreement was violated starting really last spring, but it much more rigorously in December and up until now. And as I said, Turkey has, its interests are in insuring against any more Syrian refugees coming into, into Turkey. So, the situation militarily got quite heated . It resulted though in Russia and Turkey agreeing to a ceasefire last week, but I think this is likely to be a temporary measure. There's really no, this, this ceasefire does not appear to have a long-term solution. It's not clear at all what's going to happen to the nearly 1 million people have been displaced inside Idlib. They have nowhere to go. And so, I think this is a situation that that bears close watching. We could, we could easily see the ceasefire violated. There's a history of ceasefires being violated in Syria and we may see once again a rise in tensions between Russia and Turkey.

Tim Farley: Mona, the United States, under President Obama. There was the infamous red line incident. He thought that there would be certain conditions under which that would be crossing a line for him that was one that he couldn't accept, which included Assad firing on his own people, but that went by the wayside because Congress didn't move and President said, I'm going to let it leave it up to them to come up with an authorization for the use of military force. President Trump had sent some missiles flying into, into Syria at one point, but it seemingly has backed off. Is there an appropriate action for the U.S. to take is a wait and see? Is that pretty much where we are right now?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, unfortunately, I think the U.S. right now has very limited leverage in Syria. As you know, uh, if anything, we have been progressively drawing down our presence in eastern Syria. There's really no appetite for any sort of U.S. military intervention in Syria. We have provided additional humanitarian assistance. The U.S. is one of the largest donors, we've provided about $10 billion in humanitarian assistance since the beginning of the war. But unfortunately, Tim, I don't think there's much more the U.S. can do, other than perhaps some diplomatic support. They're putting sanctions on the Assad regime. But these are all sort of long-term measures. I don't, I don't see much in terms of the short-term that the U.S. can do to help alleviate the tensions and the fighting that has been taking place in Idlib.

Tim Farley: Mona. Last question, and this has to do, I mean, obviously we talk about the nation states that are taking part in this, this whole thing, which is Syria, Russia, Turkey, the United States. But the people, I mean, the refugee problem is, is clearly staggering. In addition to that, one wonders, who is it that Assad is ruling over now? I mean, are these people just cowed by him? Are they loyal to him? Are they, they've got to be hoping for better days?

Mona Yacoubian: Well, I think you've, you've really put your finger on probably one of the most tragic aspects of the Syrian conflict, which is exactly that Syrian civilians who have suffered enormously. I mean, Syria’s war has really been a humanitarian tragedy. Children in particular have suffered disproportionately. And the fact of the matter is that Syrians are terrified, who live under Assad's rule. And, you, you, it's very unlikely that we will see, for example, refugees return to Syria as long as Assad is in control. Um, his, his brutality, his lack of, of observation, of any sort of, of human rights really suggests that unfortunately, at least for the short-to-medium term, I think we're going to see people, Syrians living under, again, these sort of horrific conditions. No real relief in sight.

Tim Farley: On that sober note, we will wrap it up. Mona Yacoubian, thank you as always.

Mona Yacoubian: Thank you so much for having me.

Tim Farley: That is Mona Yacoubian, senior policy scholar for the United States Institute of Peace. Days are numbered for Bashar al-Assad, but the number keeps growing. It keeps increasing, and of course we have a complication with Russia and Syria and the role of the U.S. on what is taking place in that country. Mona, by the way, is tweeting @myacoubian.

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