What's Next In The Syrian War: Idlib Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group tells NPR's Scott Simon about the danger an attack on Syrian rebels in Idlib poses to hundreds of thousands of already displaced people.

What's Next In The Syrian War: Idlib

What's Next In The Syrian War: Idlib

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Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group tells NPR's Scott Simon about the danger an attack on Syrian rebels in Idlib poses to hundreds of thousands of already displaced people.


After this weekend, the last contested region of Syria may come under ferocious attack. After more than seven years of fighting, the end of the Syrian war may come down to Idlib province. This area borders Turkey. It holds more than 3 million people, many of whom have been displaced. It's been essentially a kind of dumping ground for those opposed to Bashar al-Assad's regime and ISIS. Russia, Iran and Turkey met yesterday to try to resolve Idlib's fate. The U.S. and its allies fear Assad's forces could resort to a chemical attack. Joined now by Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group and a former adviser on the Middle East to President Obama. Mr. Malley, thanks for being with us.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: From what you can tell, what's happening on the ground there in Idlib?

MALLEY: Well, what's been happening now for some time has been some attacks by the Syrian regime and now more recently by Russian aviation, which are sort of probing attacks, warning signs or the prelude to the kind of assault - the tragic assault with catastrophic humanitarian implications that you suggested might happen. So it's unclear whether these are just the first steps or whether it's a warning sign or a little bit of both.

SIMON: And the humanitarian consequences would be grave, wouldn't they?

MALLEY: Well, you know, look at it this way. You mentioned there are 3 million people. About half of them are already displaced from other areas of Syria. It has become a dumping ground for some of the hardcore jihadists who were not prepared to settle for some of the forced agreements that took place, the forced surrenders that took place elsewhere. And these people are facing, on the one side, Syrian regime and Russian aviation that is - that could be attacking at any minute. They're facing jihadists in their own midst who are - some of them are killing people who they suspect might be prepared to reach agreements with the Russians and the regime. And then they have at the border Turkey, which is - already has about 3 million refugees and is not prepared to take any more. So where are these people going to go? Where do people go when they've reached the last place that they can go? What's the refuge after the last refuge? That's the tragedy that they face.

SIMON: And what do you make of the fact that these multiparty talks about Syria include Russia, Turkey and Iran but not the U.S?

MALLEY: Well, this is an area where the U.S. really is not present. And, you know, as you said, I worked on Syria under the Obama administration. And this is not criticizing the Trump administration because every day we worked on Syria, unfortunately, was a day we failed. So it is the fact that the U.S. does not have much influence in this area. It's an area where Turkey is present, the regime is present and Russia's present. And Iran, by virtue of its alliance with the Syrian regime, is also at least an actor. It doesn't mean the U.S. doesn't have influence. And we've seen in recent days the tone of the administration sort of rising in intensity in terms of warning Russia and warning the regime against an attack. What's not clear is what they would do to prevent it or what they would do if it were to begin.

SIMON: Mr. Malley, with respect, I heard you say, I believe, referring to the administration of which you were a part, we failed. After so many years, it seems as if Bashar al-Assad, who has attacked his own people - so often mercilessly - is going to remain in power. Did the world fail Syria?

MALLEY: Sure. I mean, there's no there's no doubt about it. I mean, the first person who failed Syria was President Assad himself. But the world failed, and I think people have to look back. And it's not an easy answer - what went wrong. But, obviously, the Obama administration was not able to end the war. And so to that extent, it was a big failure, and that failure has continued. I think it's not time, perhaps today, to go over the history of what went wrong. But today, the real challenge is not to make things worse. And for everything that's gone wrong and all the tragedy that's occurred in Syria, what is quite extraordinary is to think that an assault on Idlib could be the bloodiest yet because of the numbers of people there, because of the number of civilians but also of jihadists and because, as I said, there's nowhere left to go for the civilians of Idlib.

SIMON: Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group, thanks so much.

MALLEY: Thank you.

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