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Idlib airstrikes by Russia and Assad test U.S. resolve in Syria

rubble of a building hit by an airstrike, with people standing in the background
Buildings destroyed by a reported regime airstrike on the town of Ariha, in the south of Syria's Idlib province, on July 24. Photo: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

A renewed onslaught by the Syrian and Russian governments against opposition-held areas of Idlib reflects both the conflict's ongoing toll and the loss of American influence over events on the ground.

The big picture: The State Department condemned this week's attacks, which have killed at least 36 civilians, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for "an immediate ceasefire" and "return to the political process." Since April, airstrikes across Syria's northwest attributed to Russia and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have killed at least 606 civilians, including 157 children, and displaced up to 300,000 people.

Where it stands: Now home to nearly 3 million people, many of them displaced, Idlib has become the world's largest refugee enclave.

  • It's 1 of 4 de-escalation zones (DEZs) brokered by Turkey, Russia and Iran during May 2017 talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, which effectively supplanted the U.S.–led Geneva peace process. The Trump administration's withdrawal of troops from areas in northern Syria liberated from the Islamic State has further reduced American leverage.
  • While the DEZs "froze" the frontlines of conflict, the regime and Russia have strategically used the diplomatic cover to coerce the remaining opposition-held DEZs in central and southern Syria to surrender.
  • Russia's involvement in the latest Idlib campaign signals its willingness to test the resolve of both the U.S. and Turkey, which has struggled under the humanitarian spillover across its southern border.

What to watch: The Trump administration may be pressed to respond with more than a tweet from Secretary Pompeo, especially if Assad's regime continues its most egregious tactics, such as deploying chemical and incendiary weapons and destroying hospitals in order to drive residents and militants alike out of opposition-held neighborhoods.

Adham Sahloul is a foreign policy analyst and former researcher at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.