Congress pushes Trump to get tough on Idlib

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Article Summary
Congress is calling on the State Department to get tougher on calling out reported Syrian war crimes as forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime attempt to advance deeper into Idlib, one of the opposition’s last holdouts in the war-torn country.

Even as the Donald Trump administration has taken a mostly hands-off approach to the surge in fighting in Idlib, one of Syria’s last remaining opposition holdouts against the Bashar al-Assad regime, Congress is pushing the State Department to get tougher on reported war crimes in the contested province.

In a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the US ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, Reps. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., and Adam Kinzinger, D-Ill., both of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and 19 other members of Congress urged the administration to call out three pro-regime strikes in Idlib in July and August that the UN says killed at least 17 civilians and injured 54.

“The deliberate attacks on civilians, protected objects, and medical personnel, as well as the forced displacement of civilians, are war crimes and constitute crimes against humanity,” Malinowski and Kinzinger wrote Tuesday in the letter, which was seen by Al-Monitor. “If the current escalation by government-aligned forces is not slowed, the United Nations assesses that the suffering in Idlib province will likely devolve into the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st century.”

The members also urged the United States to support investigations into the pro-Assad Tiger Forces, a Russia-backed air intelligence unit that experts have called among the largest fighting organizations in Syria. American officials believe Iranian proxies have increasingly backfilled Assad’s weakened military as it has advanced into Idlib.

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Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, State Department Syria envoy Joel Rayburn said the Russians retain “decisive” influence over Assad’s forces.

Though the United States has no military authorities to hit Assad’s forces in Idlib, the Pentagon has repeatedly called on Russia to halt bombing to support the regime-led offensive, which the UN says has killed 1,000 civilians and injured more than 300.

In recent days, Russia announced that it would expand Khmeimim air base in Syria’s coastal Latakia province that borders Idlib.

Despite a lack of regular high-level engagement with Russia, the United States has tried to reopen channels for countering terrorism in the embattled province.

Click above to read the letter.  

The New York Times reported Monday that the Pentagon has become concerned that Hurras al-Din, an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Idlib, could stage attacks into Europe and the United States, and that the Pentagon received the go-ahead from Russian forces to launch airstrikes into the province to go after the group earlier this year.

But former American officials who tried to enlist Russian counterterrorism cooperation in the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2016 said such an effort is unlikely to succeed, given Moscow’s support for the Assad regime and use of heavy-handed tactics to retake opposition-held areas. Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Barack Obama administration, said that although Trump agreed to a deescalation agreement at the Group of 20 in Hamburg in July 2017, "Those safe zones got pummeled.” Carpenter added, “This notion that we can cooperate on de-escalation or [counterterrorism] is ludicrous.”

Still, experts said there is limited hope that Russia will open Idlib’s airspace so that the United States can go after terrorist forces in the province. “The best case scenario is that Washington and Moscow’s interests align,” said Colin Clarke, who teaches at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. “There are some really nefarious actors still in Syria, some of whom want to go back to Russia and target Putin’s regime.” 

Meanwhile, the United States has fallen back on a familiar set of foreign policy tools to try and blunt Assad’s military power as the Idlib offensive has ramped up. A bipartisan, Congress-approved US strategy for the Syrian campaign released last week determined that Russia and Iran would eventually “exhaust” their willingness to support Assad under the pressure of sanctions and Israeli airstrikes into regime areas.

Top officials working on Syria insisted Wednesday that the Trump administration saw the Assad regime as another pillar in the Trump administration’s so-called "maximum pressure" strategy that targets Iran and other American adversaries with sanctions and the presence of US troops to force behavior changes. 

“The Assad regime is rerunning the Holocaust in the 21st century,” Rayburn said Wednesday. The State Department official said the Syrian public “is not going to go back into the teeth of a killing machine.”

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Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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