As Syria slides towards its eighth year of war, the city of Idlib remains in the cross-hairs of President Al-Asad’s war-machine as the Syrian military looks to recapture the last major stronghold of the Syrian opposition. After pulverising cities and towns across Syria, deploying chemical weapons, most notably in Douma, Khan Shaykhun, and Ghouta, and terrorising civilians with barrel bombs, President Al-Asad has gradually recaptured districts under the control of the opposition following interventions by Hezbollah and Iranian Quds Force. 63,000 Russian soldiers have seen combat in Syria since the Kremlin authorised a military campaign in 2015. In September, 2018, an impending assault by the Al-Asad government on Idlib (the final stronghold of the opposition), supported by the Russian military, was temporarily frozen after presidents Vladimir Putin and Recip Erdogan hammered out the Sochi Agreement on 16th-17th September.
The agreement decided by the leaders of Russia and Turkey at a bilateral summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi demilitarised Idlib - including Western Aleppo and the Hama governorates - and the armies of Moscow and Ankara would enforce these zones of ‘deescalation’. The move, at least in the short-term, was welcomed by the Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura and Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. Speaking on 18th September after the deal was struck, the benefits of the agreement lay in the breathing space given to humanitarian actors. “(The agreement) is welcome” said De Mistura, “We were all in a full preparation (for) what could have been the worst military escalation in the whole conflict.” Lowcock went further than De Mistura: “It looked to us as though we may be facing the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, the biggest loss of life the world has seen in this century.” With Yemen facing the worst famine in decades, this exaggeration from Lowcock should not distract from the fact that Idlib would have created a new humanitarian tragedy which no one wanted - at this point.
The second, most importantly, was the political checks on the military conflict between President Al-Asad’s government and the remaining rebel pockets by creating a demilitarised zone, 15-20km in depth. Russia reiterated within the memorandum that it would ‘take all necessary measures to ensure that military operations and attacks on Idlib (would) be avoided and the existing status quo maintained.’ Officials in the Free Syrian Army and the government welcomed the Sochi Agreement, withdrawing their heavy weapons including tanks and cannons from the zones drawn out by the Russian and Turkish officials. “The Idlib deal preserves lives of civilians and their direct targeting by the regime.” said Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, “It buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria.”
However, as Shiraz Maher correctly notes, the Syrian War is not that simple. The war is “air inside a balloon: squeeze one part, and you merely move the air elsewhere.” As Patrick Cockburn writes Turkey’s priorities are the Syrian Kurds: ‘The priority for Turkey is to prevent the creation of a Kurdish statelet under US protection in Syria and for this it needs Russian cooperation. It was the withdrawal of the Russian air umbrella protecting the Kurdish enclave of Afrin earlier this year that enabled the Turkish army to invade and take it over.’ A ceasefire in Idlib, merely meant a crisis flared in the northeast between Turkey, the United States and the Syrian Kurds in December, 2018.
During this spell, members of both the UK and United States’ special forces were killed and/or critically wounded by Islamic State fighters. Israeli jets conducted their biggest series of airstrikes on Syrian territory in January, 2019, a new precedent in their conflict with Iran. Russia’s tacit approval for Operation Olive Branch, spearheaded by the Turkish Armed Forces and the TFSA (Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army) paramilitary sunk U.S ambitions in north-east Syria and paved the way for a temporary ceasefire in Idlib, a situation which suited both the Kremlin and Ankara. Turkey would face a new refugee crisis - having already absorbed millions of refugees since the civil war broke out - if the conflict around Idlib escalated, while Russia would face fierce condemnation from the Western powers and scrutiny from the international community should their ally, the Syrian government wreak havoc on a city already in dire straits, and crammed with millions of refugees. With Russia onside (and U.S support low) for its military agenda in Syria, Turkey has the green light it needs to currently wage war on the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces who received the support of the Western powers in the fight against Islamic State until President Trump’s abrupt announcement that American forces would withdraw from the north-east.
Furthermore for Russia, a break out of hostilities in Idlib could lead to an unravelling across the entire country, in the north and east between the YPG, its allies and Turkey and the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition. Perhaps most dangerously, a surge in violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict, one could spark direct war between Israel, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Renewed conflict in Idlib would mean the heaviest fighting seen since the military operations in Afrin and Eastern Ghouta. A war between Israel and Iran would change the face of the Middle East and a provoke a conflict as devastating as the October War in 1973 or Six Day War in 1967.
The Sochi Agreement has been precarious and there are signs it is beginning to unravel as infighting between the jihadist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and other members of the Syrian opposition continues. On January, 29th, a dozen were killed and at-least thirty five were wounded in Maarat al-Numan by artillery fire by the Syrian Army. This was the highest death toll in Idlib in months. A day earlier, a suicide bomber who had laced herself with explosives killed one person and wounded three more, targeting a council run by a HTS-linked group.
The shelling of the marketplace came a day after Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, expressed doubts over the proper implementation of the Sochi Agreement. According to The New Arab, in a conversation with Kazakh minister, Beibut Atamkulov, he said “A terrorist nest that is still in Idlib is a fact, and our Syrian colleagues have confirmed their readiness to eliminate this terrorist hotspot. The fact that Nusra and its reincarnation, HTS, have, in fact, taken over a large portion of the territory there, of course, does not correspond to the agreements that were reached on the security issues of Idlib." As Lavrov predicted a new offensive on Idlib by the Syrian military and its paramilitaries, media outlets and non-governmental organisations have been reporting on the deteriorating situation in the province. On the same day Maarat al-Numan was attacked, The Times reported that the Syrian army ‘has been reinforcing itself since last summer with a view to what could be the last and biggest confrontation of the eight-year war.’ Fourteen opposition villages and towns surrounding Idlib and Hama have experienced fighting between loyalists and rebels.
Human Rights Watch have documented torture and arrests of activists by HTS. Medical personnel and journalists have been murdered and kidnapped by HTS, gangs or Turkish-backed rebel groups. Richard Spencer described Idlib as the new Gaza, a place where corruption, terrorism and criminality are flourishing in ‘fenced and patrolled limbo land, cut off from the rest of Syria but without the means to pursue anything more than a kind of half life.’ 3 million people live in a province which used to be home to 1.5 million people which has created conditions of economic deprivation and poverty, cluttered by overcrowded camps and temporary shelters. The freezing conditions, precipitated by Storm Norma and heavy snowfall across Lebanon and Syria has exacerbated the crisis in Idlib, with over half the population food insecure and 275,000 live in the shelters. NGOs have struggled to support civilians in Idlib as aid budgets have been slashed both the British and US governments. Budget cuts to humanitarian aid have walked hand in hand with the threat of kidnap, ransom or death at the hands of extremists, foreign fighters (largely comprised of Chechens, Uighurs, and Uzbeks) and ideological transnational Salafi jihadist groups. These groups, as senior analyst from Crisis Group, Sam Heller, says “cannot be integrated into Syria really, under any circumstances, who have nowhere to go and who may just be ready to die in any case. They're a real stumbling block to any solution.”
Their extremism has played into the hands of Damascus and Moscow, and Turkey - who has regularly provided direct military support to Sunni fighting groups and the Free Syrian Army - has been unable to rein in its proxies in Idlib through fear of retaliation of more terrorist attacks in Turkey. HTS’s exerting control over Idlib, an estimated 10,000 - 20,000 fighters, presents a problem to the Russians, as it clearly stipulates in memorandum that Russia and Turkey had ‘reiterated their determination to combat terrorism in Syria in all forms and manifestations.’ This is clearly not happening, and it makes an offensive inevitable. ‘The Turkish Army has deployed troops to 12 observation posts that encircle Idlib province. These posts were established between October 2017 and May 2018 under the Russia-sponsored Astana Process. Turkey is involved in both of them, but is more eager to destroy the YPG than deal with HTS in Idlib.’ However, as Middle East analyst Joumana Gebara writes it could be Turkey and Russia who coordinate on how to deal with the jihadists:
“Turkey would get its five kilometres - not 20 miles/32 kilometres - buffer zone against the Kurds if it allows a limited regime offensive in Idlib. It looks like this will impact Idlib. The continuously postponed Idlib offensive is becoming more inevitable and the Turkish Army may get involved with the war against HTS if Ankara doesn't pull back its troops from the military posts around Idlib. Such a scenario may require Ankara not only to participate actively in this war against HTS and coordinate its actions on the ground with Moscow, but also to take some military measures soon that would ease the Russia-supported regime offensive in Idlib, directly and indirectly.”
The humanitarian crisis in Syria which has shook the world will continue whether or not Idlib is recaptured by the government or Turkish forces. The affects of of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide (conducted by all sides in one form or another) has already changed the face of the country and half of the population are refugees inside and outside Syria’s borders. The damage is done, a final battle in Idlib would effectively be a microcosm of everything that has come before; barrel bombs, indiscriminate aerial attacks, refugees, the targeting of medical facilities, atrocities and massacres committed by different sides of the war.
Regardless of what happens in Idlib, the international and regional actors who have failed Syria are not only accepting that President Al-Asad will stay but are actively engaging with the government.“The Arabs can’t make war without Egypt; and they can’t make peace without Syria,” Henry Kissinger once said and a Syria (now) without President Al-Asad is consigned to perpetual instability. The current conflicts between the factions in Idlib demonstrates some of the frustrations experienced by international and regional policymakers to the maximum. With competing sponsors and interests, the unity established by the opposition in the initial months of the Syrian Revolution crumbled rapidly.
The government made sure there was no middle ground or compromise by making their first targets, indisputably, moderates, activists, regime critics, bloggers, students, liberals, political dissidents, and human rights advocates and campaigners. Jihadists and extremists filled the void, and moderates who remained in Syria struggled to dominate, both militarily and politically. Without the Syrian government and army, a terrible force equal in ferocity to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, new wars will erupt. The Western powers blinked in President Al-Asad’s game of brinksmanship in the early stages of the Syrian War. The opportunity was lost and Syria already burning, descended into inferno, and it was Al-Asad, Russia, Turkey and Iran, not the Western powers, who dictated the conflict’s direction. A renewed assault by the Syrian Army on Idlib in 2019 could end the Syrian War in its current form, but in doing so it will thrust the Israeli-Iranian rivalry in Syria, and the Israeli military’s long war with Hezbollah to the forefront of the international conflict. Whatever happens, whether or not President Al-Asad deals the death blow to the Syrian Revolution in the streets of Idlib, it is the Syrian people who will continue to bear the brunt of a devastating regional war which spiralled out of control a long time ago.