The USA has largely withdrawn from Syria. Europe never really got involved. The consequences are terrible — for Europe too, writes Rainer Hermann of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a guest opinion.
A humanitarian catastrophe is taking place in Idlib, and the world is looking the other way. Photos like those taken towards the end of World War Two ought really to be a wake-up call: long treks of refugees moving northward through snow and frost to the Turkish border, where they hope to be saved. They have very few possessions still with them.
The Syrian regime, supported by Russian planes and pro-Iranian militias, is pursuing a scorched-earth strategy in Idlib. Helicopters drop barrel bombs on hospitals and schools, markets and homes. Large settlements have been depopulated and become ghost towns. The unmistakable message is: There will be no life here in future!
The Syrian war machine is driving hundreds of thousands of defenseless people before it like a steamroller. Aid organisations estimate that 290,000 of the displaced are children. Every night, some of them freeze to death. But to the Syrian regime, everyone in the province is a "terrorist." A great many of its inhabitants came to Idlib in recent years, fleeing Assad's army and henchmen. There's now no longer anywhere left for them to take refuge.
Russian contempt for human life and Turkish fears
The Russian leadership is cynically participating in this contempt for human life and is permitting what Russia itself practiced in the Chechen capital, Grozny, to happen in Idlib. Meanwhile, the torture regime in Damascus has been completely discredited. Anyone who still believed they could negotiate Syria's political future with those in power there should finally ditch their naivety. Assad and the supporters of his regime want to bomb the country into one where only loyal Syrians still live, where all potential troublemakers have been driven out. But this won't bring peace to Syria.
Ankara fears that one in two of the current population of almost 4 million in the Idlib region may settle in Turkey if the border is opened. As things stand, the border is closed, sealed with a high wall. Because more refugees would destabilize Turkey — and because Europe also wants and needs to prevent another influx of refugees. This shows what power Russia has over Europe, when, as is now the case with Libya, it is sitting on a key point on a migration route.
Presidents Erdogan and Putin spoke again on Thursday, but the phone conversation brought them no closer. Turkey is embarking on a risky game. It's trying to drive the Syrian army back behind the 12 observation posts by military force. These posts were actually created to control a cease-fire for Idlib that was agreed on by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Read more: Over 60 Germans among Islamists in Idlib
Disingenuous complaint from Germany
Turkey is not doing only itself a service with this, but Europe as well. The complaint that German weapons may also be used in this operation by the Turkish armed forces is therefore disingenuous. And when Angela Merkel offered to build winter-proof housing for 100,000 refugees in Idlib, she found herself facing a storm of outrage. Once again, Europe is helpless and powerless, even though all the values the continent stands for are being brutally bombed.
Much here is reminiscent of the war in Yugoslavia, when Europe stood by helplessly, at a loss, and watched the Serbian massacres. Back then, it was only an ultimatum from the bullish American diplomat Richard Holbrooke to the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and then targeted American bombing, that put an end to the murder of the people.
The daily actions of the Syrian regime show what happens when the United States withdraws as a force of law and order — and Europe, the self-proclaimed guardian of human rights, makes another declaration of moral bankruptcy.