US lacks leverage as assault on Syrian enclave looms

  • Smoke rises over buildings that were hit by airstrikes in al-Sahan village, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria on Tuesday. “Air raid by the Russian occupation plane targets al-Sahan village,” the Arabic reads. (Ibaa News Agency/ via AP)

  • Civil Defense workers and Syrian citizens inspect damage buildings after airstrikes hit a market area in Idlib, Syria on June. 12, 2016. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets/via AP File)

WASHINGTON — Despite dire U.S. warnings and fears of a humanitarian disaster, the Trump administration has little leverage to stop Russia, Iran and Syria pressing ahead with a massive military assault against Syria’s northwest Idlib province.

Washington has threatened military action in case of a chemical weapons attack but its mixed messaging on retaining a U.S. presence in Syria and a cut in aid has diminished its already limited influence over the seven-year conflict.

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So the administration, which has criticized former President Barack Obama for his inaction on Syria after the war started in 2011, risks appearing powerless to prevent the three nations’ plan to retake Syria’s last rebel-held area. It’s an operation that many warn will cause major bloodshed among a vulnerable population of 3 million people.

And on Saturday, Syrian government and Russian warplanes targeted the province’s southern edge in what activists described as the most intense airstrikes in weeks. More than 60 air raids killed at least four civilians in southern Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and rescue workers.

While the new U.S. special envoy for Syria said this week that America will stay in Syria until the complete eradication of the Islamic State group, there’s little assurance that President Donald Trump won’t again seek the withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in the country. And in a sign of the administration’s shrinking commitment to Syria, it has pulled more than $200 million in stabilization funding for liberated areas, telling other nations they should step up to pay.

A summit in Tehran on Friday between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen as a chance for a diplomatic solution before a full-scale assault on Idlib. The three nations are all tacitly allied against IS and in support of a unified, stable Syria, but have differing views of how to achieve those ends.

After Friday’s talks, the U.N. envoy for Syria told the U.N. Security Council there were indications that the three leaders intend to continue talking to avoid a catastrophe. But above all, the summit highlighted the stark differences among these allies of convenience, with Putin and Rouhani opposing Erdogan’s call for a cease-fire.

As they discussed the fate of Idlib, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was talking tough in New York, telling the Security Council that the United States would consider any assault on the province as a “dangerous escalation” of the conflict that has already claimed more than 400,000 lives and forced more than 5 million Syrians to flee the country.

“If (Syrian President Bashar) Assad, Russia, and Iran continue, the consequences will be dire,” said Haley, who was chairing the council meeting. “The Assad regime must halt its offensive … Russia and Iran, as countries with influence over the regime, must stop this catastrophe. It is in their power to do so.”

Those remarks capped a week of rising U.S. rhetoric opposing the Idlib operation.

Nicholas Heras, a Syria analyst and fellow at the Center for New American Security said Idlib is the last opportunity for the U.S. to increase leverage in Syria, and if the province falls before the Geneva talks, Trump administration efforts to re-engage with peace talks will likely fail.

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Heras warned that the Trump team is late to formulate a coherent Syria policy.

“It’s like trying to save the house as it’s burning down,” he said.