In launching its military offensive against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad earlier this month in Syria’s Idlib Province, Turkey advanced at least two different arguments – self-defense and humanitarian intervention. Its Operation “Spring Shield” that began on March 1 was its fourth offensive against the Assad regime since August 2016. This one came three days after the Syrian government’s attack on Turkish forces, killing at least 33 soldiers and injuring more than 30 in Idlib, a de-escalation zone in northwestern Syria, just across Turkey’s southern border. That attack was one of a series since January against Turkish soldiers in Idlib.
One of Turkey’s justifications invoked the right to self-defense enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, in the wake of the Feb. 27 Syrian attack. The second rationale focused on the need for intervention on humanitarian grounds. In the words of Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar Defense, in videotaped and quoted remarks on the ministry’s site:
We have neither intention nor notion to confront Russia. … Our only intention is that the [Syrian] regime should end the massacre and thus prevent and stop radicalization and migration. … All of our efforts are primarily to ensure a cease-fire, to prevent migration and to stop the bloodshed … and thus to bring peace, peace and stability to the region as soon as possible.
As is well known, the legality of unilateral, forcible humanitarian intervention under the U.N. Charter and under current international law more generally, remains doubtful at best. But rather than debate that question here, this article concentrates on the plausibility of the humanitarian rationale for Operation Spring Shield, considering the catastrophic situation in Idlib and the events leading up to Turkey’s March 1 offensive. (Spring Shield also likely was spurred by the failure of the Syrian government to withdraw its army from Turkish observation points set up in accordance with the 2018 Sochi demilitarization agreement that was intended to avoid a military confrontation in Idlib between Turkey and Russian-backed Syrian government forces. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had issued several warnings to the Syrian regime to withdraw by the end of February. But more on that later.)
The Catastrophic Situation in the Governorate of Idlib – the De-escalation Zone
The Sept. 17, 2018, Sochi demilitarization agreement between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin included a ceasefire that was welcomed by the Syrian government. The 10-point agreement provided for establishing a demilitarized area 15 to 20 km wide along the contact line between the armed opposition and Syrian government troops. It also called for the removal of all radical terrorist groups from the demilitarized zone by Oct. 15, 2018, and the restoration of transit traffic on the M4 (Aleppo-Lattakia) and M5 (Aleppo-Hama) highways by the end of 2018.
The agreement was in line with previous accords on de-escalation zones resulting from the 2017 Astana talks. Those accords empowered the guarantors of the Syrian political process — Russia, Turkey, and Iran — to take effective measures to preserve a sustainable ceasefire regime within the Idlib de-escalation zone. As part of this framework, Turkey set up 12 observation points in Idlib.
But since the 2018 Sochi agreement, which called for effective measures for ensuring a sustainable ceasefire regime within Idlib, the ceasefire has been violated continually. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded at least 1,746 civilians – including 513 children and 338 women –killed in Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama governorates in northwest Syria between April 29, 2019, and February 24 of this year. More than 1 million Syrians fled to areas along the Turkish border.
At the end of April 2019, the Syrian government army, backed by Russia and Iran, launched a military offensive against the demilitarized zone in violation of the ceasefire agreement. The Syrian regime justified that offensive by citing what it said was an increase in rebel attacks on government-held areas originating from within the demilitarized zone.
While indiscriminate strikes by armed groups hitting residential neighbourhood in government-controlled areas did in fact occur and are unacceptable, the retaliation by launching a full-scale military offensive against Idlib was unjustifiable, too, in particular because of the massive, indiscriminate, and disproportionate targeting of civilians, hospitals and medical centers, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.
In August 2019, the Syrian government continued and intensified its attacks in the Idlib region to regain control of major cities in Idlib, such as Khan Sheikhoun, and in order to reopen two major routes for traffic and trade — the M4 and M5 that cross Idlib. Mark Cutts, the U.N.’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria Crisis, reported in January that more than 1,300 people were killed during that April to August offensive last year.
Vetoes at the U.N. Security Council
U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock last August described the impact of the collapse of the ceasefire, saying that “three million people – two-thirds of them women and children – are counting on your support to make this violence stop.” He noted that he had briefed the U.N. Security Council “many times over the last few months.”
In the following months, Russia and China would twice nix Security Council resolutions to ease the suffering, one on Sept. 19, 2019 that called for a ceasefire in Idlib, and a second introduced in December 2019, amid the Syrian regime’s continuing offensive and a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Idlib. The December proposal would have extended the validity of the pre-existing mechanism that allows cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted Russia’s and China’s vetoes as “shameful” and said in a statement that they had “blood on [their] hands.” Pompeo added, “Russia’s and China’s vetoes of this resolution demonstrate that these governments simply do not care that the horrible Syrian regime continues to obstruct and deny humanitarian access to its own people.”
In 2020, as Russian-backed Syrian government forces continued to advance and regained control of other major cities such as Maret al-Numan and Saraqib, the humanitarian situation dramatically worsened. This not only led to a significant increase in the number of displaced Syrian civilians, but also resulted in carnage long feared by the international community.
On Feb. 19, Geir Pedersen, the special envoy of the U.N. secretary-general for Syria, briefed the Security Council. The U.N. account of the meeting said he reported “there has been no progress since he last addressed the Council two weeks ago, citing ongoing military operations in Idlib Governorate that are in violation of ceasefire agreements.”
“More than 900,000 people have been displaced in Idlib since 1 December 2019, and children are dying from cold,” the U.N. report said, citing Pedersen. It also described Lowcock’s remarks:
Reporting that air and ground-based strikes in north‑western Syria killed at least 100 civilians, including 35 children, between 1 and 16 February, he noted that more than 90 per cent of those deaths occurred in areas not controlled by the Government of Syria. He added that 160,000 people were recorded fleeing the front lines from 13 to 16 February, with almost 50,000 of them sheltering under trees or in open spaces.
On Feb. 19, Erdoğan warned that it would be only a matter of time before Turkey would launch an operation to stop the Syrian government’s military offensive against the opposition-held Idlib Province. He reiterated that the end of February was the deadline for the Syrian army’s withdrawal outside the demilitarized zone, in line with the Sochi Agreement.
Meetings with Russian officials on ending the bloodshed in Idlib had failed to produce results, Erdoğan said. Thus, while the dramatic attack on Turkish soldiers by Assad’s forces on Feb. 27 was Operation Spring Shield’s immediate impetus, Turkish military casualties are not the only stated rationale behind this operation. “It is our historical, humanitarian and conscientious responsibility to protect the right to life of our neighbour Syrian brothers,” Minister Akar said on March 1, in defense of Operation Spring Shield.
The Failure to Take Collective Humanitarian Action
Idlib is a textbook case in which forcible humanitarian intervention is desperately needed. A humanitarian intervention should have been authorized by the Security Council, which had been abundantly briefed for months about the plight of the civilian population. The council has, however, remained paralyzed.
Under these circumstances, a coordinated action by Western governments capable of providing at least some protection for the suffering civilian population would have been the next-best option; it would have been cynical to dismiss such an intervention as “neo-colonial.” Yet, no such action materialized, and at the same time, requests made by Turkey with a view to mobilizing support for the civilian population have repeatedly been blocked or simply ignored.
On Feb. 27, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his grave concern about the escalation of violence in northwest Syria and reported that dozens of Turkish soldiers had been killed by an airstrike. Guterres reiterated his call for an immediate ceasefire and expressed particular concern about the risk to civilians from escalating military actions, stressing that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. He also added that the only sustainable solution is a U.N.-facilitated political process pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015).
On Feb. 28, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said:
Allies offer their deepest condolences for the death of Turkish soldiers in last night’s bombing near Idlib. Allies condemn the continued indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime and its backer Russia in Idlib Province. We call on them to stop their offensive. To respect international law. And to back UN efforts for a peaceful solution.
Hollow Truism of “No Military Solution”
Sadly, nine years of talking about a political solution have produced very little, to say the least. While talks on a political solution should nevertheless continue, the truism that there can be “no military solution to the Syrian conflict” should no longer be invoked as an excuse for the international community’s blatant failure to do anything meaningful in order to stop the many years of unspeakable suffering of civilians on the ground. Frankly, this slogan sounds ever-more hollow the longer civilians continue to suffer repeated brutal attacks.
Pentagon Press Secretary Alyssa Farah said on Feb. 27, “We are exploring ways the United States can work together with Turkey and the international community.” On the same day, Lindsey Graham, a Republican U.S. senator close to President Donald Trump, called for the United States to intervene and for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Idlib Province, stating that:
The world is sitting on its hands and watching the destruction of Idlib by Assad, Iran, and the Russians … [but that he remains] confident if the world, led by the United States, pushed back against Iran, Russia and Assad that they would stand down, paving the way for political negotiations to end this war in Syria.
NATO member states and the United States have voiced “full solidarity” with Turkey, but so far there has been no helpful response to Turkey’s calls to take meaningful action, such as the establishment of a buffer zone to protect civilians in Syria.
This is the background for Turkey’s unilateral launching of Operation Spring Shield. To what extent its objectives will be reached, however, remains to be seen. On March 5, Erdoğan and Putin met and agreed on the cessation of hostilities in the Idlib de-escalation zone. It cannot be ruled out that Spring Shield played a role in spurring that agreement and has thereby made a small contribution to alleviating the suffering of Syrian civilians. Spring Shield might even have made a political solution to the broader conflict and humanitarian crisis slightly more likely.
Let any misunderstanding be avoided: to acknowledge that, when Spring Shield was launched, there existed an urgent need for meaningful, forcible humanitarian action against the troops of the Assad regime does not entail justifying the Turkish president’s disgraceful use of refugees as an existential threat to European nations for the purpose of political gains. Nor does such an acknowledgment in any way affect the compelling legal and policy cases that can be made against Turkey’s earlier Operation “Peace Spring” in Kurdish-controlled Syrian territory.
In sum, nothing of the foregoing should be misinterpreted as an argument in support of the legality of unilateral forcible humanitarian intervention under current international law. But simply dismissing any armed intervention as unlawful does not make the underlying humanitarian crisis disappear.