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Air bombardment or 'chemical attack': Suspense surrounds Idlib endgame (Comment)


The Byzantine and Roman sites of and Idlib, in northwest Syria, may well be reduced to dust if an explosion occurs on a scale many expect. Sadly these archaeological losses will not even be noticed. They will be submerged in the looming human catastrophe.

Ever since the manufactured civil war was launched in 2011 to turn the tables on the Arab Spring, the Syrian theatre has seen many climaxes: Homs, Hama, Deraa, Raqqa, Aleppo, 50 km, North East of But there is unanimity that will shake the region like nothing else has so far. This hyperbole is not based on personal observational though I have visited in the midst of the civil war.

has been warning repeatedly that the was about to use in Even before Bolton's warning, Hassan Nasrallah, much the shrewdest leader in the region, had raised an alarm: We have information that a plot was being hatched to foist on the allegation that it had used The alert eye being kept on Idlib by the Syrian government, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey, and the US exposes a population of three million to all manner of unpredictabilities.

It is an irony of our times that great and medium powers are riveted on Idlib not because of its ancient monuments or the civilian population but because of the 60-80,000 militants scattered through the governorate. These militants are from half a dozen different groups. There are quarrels galore between these groups claiming proximity to major powers with stakes in the Syrian pie. Among the bewildering range of groups are the Al Nusra Front, e Shaam, Turkestan Islamic Front with links to Uigur groups in Xinxian. There are offshoots of PKK, keeping on sixes and sevens. Not to be forgotten are the Chechens focused on the Then there is the Free Syrian Front.

For a militant is a militant and should be eliminated. Turkey, on the other hand, may see some groups - Tehrir e Shaam, for instance - as assets in Ankara's conflict with Kurdish groups. The US would like most of the militant groups to be protected because they will always come in handy whenever it becomes necessary to mount extra pressure on Bashar al may be inclined to negotiate the future of some of the assets if allowed them more bases in

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, even far off Kosovo, everywhere, Americans a super power by habit, if not in substance any longer, develop multiple interests. After the 72-day bombing of Serbia, removing Slobodan Milosevic, creating an independent enclave of Kosovo, the US moved on only after they had created Bond Steel, abutting Macedonia, the largest military base since

Likewise, they entered ostensibly to remove but have, over the past 17 years, developed multiple interests - minerals, UNOCAL pipeline, Helmand Poppy fields, keeping an eye on the world's only Muslim nuclear bomb in Pakistan, keeping Iran, Central Asian Republics, Xinxian, the under surveillance - and within range.

In Idlib too, US interests are varied. Notice I have not mentioned because that involvement is of epic proportions. Idlib in Syria is the enclave where all the regional and global stakeholders, have nudged and pushed their respective "militants", "terrorists" and "moderate groups". For Syria, and they are all the same and need to be exterminated.

This remedy is anathema to The country is already host to 3.5 million refugees. Bombing of Idlib will cause another 2.5 million civilian to cross the Turkish border.

Further, there are among the motley crowd of militants those who will checkmate a "Kurdish enclave" contiguous with the territory the PKK claims. The enclave would be the thin end of the wedge for an expansive Kurdish idea.

The US would like to create just such an enclave. Not only would it like to have bases, an American habit as I have indicated earlier, but it would have another potential state under its control. It would be the second home away from home in just as is - on a much smaller scale though.

The other, bigger idea is to divide Syria to the satisfaction of and those with a steady gaze on the The idea of dividing Syria into four is as old as the hills. But all the other powers - Iran, Turkey, Russia, for instance - will not allow this to happen. When the three powers met in last week, there was unanimity on one issue: the territorial integrity of Syria.

The presence of 1,000 European Jihadis in the brew adds further pungency to the vapours of confusion. The great European nations, their noses up, do not wish these "tainted" citizens to return. Should they be put away then? No, say European intelligence agencies. There are so many "militants", "terrorists", "moderate rebels" in Idlib. Let the Europeans gestate among them.

How long will this uneasy status quo last? Already, Russians have detected activity on the "chemical weapons" Front. There are reports that cameramen have already shot little boys being bathed to remove the "they have been exposed to". White Helmets, the miracle men who save people by appearing in the epicentre of the attack without being burnt, have been seen here and there.

Remember, the eight-year-old Syrian boy with burnt skin in October 2016, in the midst of the US election campaign. CNN's flourished a photograph of the boy before Russian Foreign Minister, in the course of an interview in

"Is this not a crime against humanity?" shouted Amanpour.

"Very sad," said an amused Lavrov. This was the first time Lavrov publicly expressed the fear that Americans were helping terrorists in Syria.

When the photograph did not make much of an impression on the Russian Foreign Minister, the very same photograph materialized in candidate Hillary Clinton's hand during the last presidential debate in With expert histrionics, Clinton simulated a lump in her throat for maximum effect.

Is Idlib about to yield a crop of pictures of white helmets and little boys with burns?

(is on political and diplomatic affairs. He can be reached at



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First Published: Sat, September 15 2018. 14:58 IST