Idlib, which came to known as “the last rebel stronghold” or dubbed as “Gaza in Syria” has been under the heavy bombing of the Syrian regime and Russian forces for months now had seen better days. The central location on the ancient Silk Road that brought a privileged status and wealth in the past to the province, is a magnet for bloodshed and misery today. It became the deadlock of the 9 years old Syrian civil war. The interests of the Syrian regime, Russia, Turkey, Iran, US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, as well as the opposition – with all its variety – are all tangled and became a Gordion knot in Idlib. While a danger of a direct military clash between Ankara and Damascus or even between Ankara and Moscow is looming by day, how and by whom it is going to be cut will pretty much determine the future of the Middle East, no less.
Idlib Province is one of the 14 provinces of Syria. It is located on the northern gate of Syria on an area about 6,000 km². The capital is Idlib. It has a 130 km long border with Turkey. It is between Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. The province has five districts; Arihah, Harem, Idlib, Jisr ash-Shugur, Ma’arrat al-Numan. It is at the crossroads of strategic M4 and M5 highways.
The modern Idlib city was built by an Ottoman Pasha in the sixteenth century and mostly governed by the rich Turkish families during the Ottoman Era.
Once the richest and most modern province of the Syrian Republic with a population around 1.500.000, Idlib amid the civil war, turned in to a centre of migrants who don’t want to leave under the Syrian regime. Almost half of the civilians there came from other previously opposition-held areas.
Besides Islamist militants were moved to the region within the context of “reconciliation deals” that were negotiated with the surrenders of rebel areas under regime siege. As the Syrian regime started to regain the rebel-held territories it became a safe haven for the ones who were fleeing from the regime forces as well as the moderate Islamist and jihadist rebels who exerted control over the region. Consequently, its population raised to almost 4 million before the latest offensive of the regime started at the beginning of Dec. 2019, in order to take over the last piece of land seized by rebels.
By February 2020 when the rebel-held territory of the province reduced into half as a result of the ongoing offensive, more than 900.000 people most of them are women and children- had to flee from Idlib. Either toward the Turkish border or to the zones at the Northwest under the control of the Turkish army and Turkish backed rebels, according to the UN. The human rights chief of UN, Michelle Bachelet said in Geneva that it was “cruel beyond belief”, civilians are living under plastic sheeting in cold and getting bombed. The U.N. Human Rights Office said 298 civilian deaths were recorded in Idlib and Aleppo, since Jan. 1.
Throughout the 9 years, old war about half of the Idlib province residents have been displaced, many of them living in makeshift shelters in the rural areas along the Turkish border. The intensifying regime offensive made the situation even worse. Under the ruthless aerial bombardment of Russian forces, regime troops are advancing and civilian casualties are increasing by the hour. Syrians, a good amount of them already had to flee twice or thrice from other parts of the country, is pouring toward the already overly crowded Turkish border area by whatever vehicles they find, in panic, fearing the revenge of the regime forces.
The intense bombing is allegedly is not only targeting radical jihadists but also civilians, hospitals, schools, bakeries and vital infrastructure to dishearten and evacuate Idlib’s civilian population since regime sees all the population in Idlib as a terrorist. Under those conditions already insufficient aid operations are disrupted thus the humanitarian condition is worse beyond imagination.
If the regime forces continue to advance, millions of Syrians will attempt to cross the Turkish border since there is no other place to go. Therefore, Turkey is going to face a terrible humanitarian situation, which will also surely affect Europe as well.
According to UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, “a failure to end the violence and find a long-term solution could result in the loss of huge numbers of people – running into hundreds of thousands, possibly even more”.
In the wake of the regime offensive backed by russian – and according to some sources also iranian forces- the refugee influx towards the turkish border has started friction between ankara- moscow and the syrian regime. It was a nightmare for Ankara that is already hosting about 4 million refugees. Despite countless meetings, ceasefires, agreements and understandings, Ankara could not succeed to prevent such an outcome.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the Astana process dead and called out for Moscow to choose either Damascus or Ankara as an ally. Yet the crisis worsened after seven Turkish soldiers and one civilian military contractor were reportedly killed and thirteen other individuals were injured by Syrian army fire. Ankara retaliated and eliminated 76 Syrian soldiers, according to the Turkish official sources. This was the largest clash between the two armies since the start of the war in 2011. Turkey has urged Russia to restrain Damascus and stop the offensive on Idlib. But it didn’t happen and on the contrary after a week regime force killed five Turkish soldiers and wounded another five of them.
Erdogan warned that unless Damascus withdraw its forces beyond the Turkish military posts in Idlib until the end of February it will face a full-scale Turkish offensive. But regime forces continued to carry on their attack. Ankara retaliated by killing 101 regime soldiers, according to the Ministry of Defense.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activists in the field has reported that starting from the Feb. 2, more than 2100 trucks and military vehicles entered from Turkey to the Syrian territory. That includes tanks, personnel carriers, armoured vehicles, mobile bulletproof guard booths and military radars with 7000 Turkish soldiers (in addition to 12.000 soldiers deployed in 12 observation posts) and the number of the Turkish observation posts rose to 33 in the de-escalation” zone.
Owing to Ankara’s increasing support, the rebels started a counter-offensive against regime forces at the northeast of Aleppo city on Feb.2, therefore opened a second front to slow the advance of the Syrian army in Idlib.
Despite the intense diplomacy that has been going on according to the latest report of International Crisis Group, “the risk of more serious Turkish-Syrian confrontation, or even a Turkish-Russian one, is rising.”
Idlib has been a serious dispute between the parties involved in the Syrian war because of the conflicting interests.
The Assad regime is understandably resolute and in a hurry “ to save the last inch of the country” and clean it from “all the terrorists,” meaning from everyone opposed to the regime either civilians or militants after 9 years of war.
This is a war of survival for the secular Baas regime especially for the Syrian leader Bashar Assad and his family that has been ruling Syria with an iron fist since 1971. The regime sees the war as a foreign plot. It has started as small anti-government protests in 2011 after the hay days of the so-called Arab Spring – a series uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across to the Islamic countries as a reaction to autocratic regimes and poor living conditions with a slogan,” the people want to bring down the regime.” Although most of them harshly suppressed as in Syria at the beginning, it succeeds in some countries as Egypt and Tunisia by bringing the powerful Sunnite movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, to power by elections albeit not for long.
The Assad regime has been in odds with the Muslim Brotherhood since 1973 when the movement’ uprising against the new constitution was put to an end brutally by Hafez Assad. Accordingly, Bashar Assad accused the Brotherhood of staging the 2011 uprising as a foreign tool. The uprising, which began as a civil protest soon by attracting the various international hardline Sunnite movements including al-Qaida affiliates “as a holy war against the secular Alawite Baath regime,” gained a religious character.
The regime did its best to exploit this for its propaganda such as by promoting the notion that his alternative is an Islamic state. It used the fighting with ISIS as a pretext to destroy-with Tehran and Moscow –the Islamist groups although many of them also did fight against ISIS. Damascus declared all Islamist militants of different genre that are trapped in Idlib as radical jihadists. Many countries which are clashing interests also gradually got involved and that made a peaceful solution way more impossible. Even the regime succeeds to clear Idlib completely it will be very likely a Pyrrhic victory because of the outside interferences that will surely continue.
Turkey, already hosting about 4 million Syrian refugees who ran away from the regime, because of Idlib’s proximity to her border has been trying to avoid another mass migration that would destabilise Turkish-controlled areas at the northeast and Turkish territory as well. Ankara concerns that the jihadist militants that would flee with the civilians might create serious security problems for Turkey.
On the other hand, by preserving her presence in the region, Ankara also apparently seeks to have leverage on the future of Syria, especially on the Kurdish populated northern border area. Ankara reportedly concerns that after Idlib the regime is going to turn to the border zone that Turkey has gained control over by several military operations to prevent an autonomous Kurdish entity at her border. If Assad regime will use the Syrian Kurdish group YPG, an offshoot of Kurdish separatist PKK in Turkey, against Ankara as it did before certainly another huge concern of Turkish officials.
Giving the Muslim Brotherhood credentials of the Erdogan administration, the alleged ethnic cleansing of the Sunnite population- most of them have been displaced to Idlib province after the war – by the Alawite Assad regime very likely creates a sensitivity for Ankara. Off course this is a nice way to put it, pro-Russian groups in Turkey are openly accusing Erdogan of following Muslim Brotherhood policies by insisting to protect Idlib. The Brotherhood is reportedly still very influential in Idlib.
Therefore, Ankara has been searching for non-military solutions for Idlib. Such as creating a de-escalation zone which was put into practice by the agreements within Astana process especially with the Sochi deal between Ankara and Moscow. Ankara committed to the Herculean task of separating the radical Islamist militants from the moderate ones and to create a heavy weapon-free safe zone for the latter and the civilians.
Ankara reportedly has been making progress. As, with the help of the efficient Muslim Brotherhood network, Turkey has convinced the Islamist rebels in the other three de-escalation zones – set up within the framework of Astana process- to have “reconciliation deals” with the regime before. Tens of thousands of rebels had left the zones without fighting by leaving their weapons behind, in return the regime accepted to give them a safe passage to Idlib that would be a safe haven for them.
Yet Ankara realized that it was only a tactic. The regime and Moscow, which the latter also employed this tactic in Chechnya against the Islamist rebels, had different designs. The Idlib deal was just for show and they had no intention to let an Islamist-ruled region in Syria to survive. Once all the Islamist militants concentrated in Idlib, they aimed to exterminate them with their families and other civilians, by a brutal military campaign backed by Russian airforces and Iranian backed Shia militants. Erdogan was referring to that hypocrisy while he was furiously declaring the Astana process death. This is according to the allegations.
Ankara’s mission became impossible after the HTS – a radical Sunnite group, an ex-affiliate of Al-Qaida- took the control of the region last year. The attacks against the regime and Russian bases by radical jihadists groups in the enclave, which are against the Astana process, very likely with the support of Saudi Arabia and UAE gave Damascus and Moscow the pretext they needed to start a violent offensive. Ankara has been accusing Moscow not protecting the civilian population in Idlib, therefore, violating the Sochi agreement.
Russia, who had already military bases in Latakia and Tartus, reversed the fate of the war in 2015 by initiated an aerial campaign to empower the Assad regime, although Moscow had no love for Assad. It was a demonstration of Moscow’s global power.
Russian bombing that was supposed to be against the ISIS mostly targeted the Islamist rebels who were gaining the upper hand. Moscow that has been in odds with the Islamist organizations, both in Russia and in its sphere of influence, concerned that Syria would be turned in to an Islamic state. Therefore, Moscow who is infamous with its “Grozni solution”-a brutal military campaign against the Islamist Chechen rebels – has no tolerance to the rebels that are jammed in Idlib today.
In response to the Ankara’s claims, Russia accuses Turkey with collaborating with the radical Islamist militants instead of isolating them from the moderates and civilians. Thus, not implementing the Sochi agreement and opening the way for the terror groups” to expand their influence in the enclave and to stage attacks against Russian-Syrian military facilities in the region.”
Russia admits the difficulty of the job yet has doubts that Turkey did not finish it to prolong its stay in Idlib to gain leverage over Damascus, besides, to prevent a refugee flow. Therefore, Moscow decided to push Ankara through the intensive bombings. In that regard, Russia allegedly does not trust Turkey, especially to the Erdogan, and highly suspicious of his intentions that if he is planning to annex a part of Syria, a former Ottoman vilayet, as in line with his neo-Ottoman aspirations.
Iran, on the other hand, was the first country who rushed to save Assad. While Moscow thinks Assad could be replaced, the survival of Assad – its best ally – is vital for Tehran to continue to be effective in the region and preserve its strategic depth.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a press conference in 2013, underlined the importance of Assad regime by saying, “Syria is the golden ring of resistance against Israel, and if it weren’t for Syria’s active government the country would become like Qatar or Kuwait. Iran is not prepared to lose this golden counterweight.” Syria was also referred by the Iranian officials as being Iran’s 35th province.
Tehran reportedly dispatched hundreds of troops and spent many billions of dollars to keep Assad in power. Besides Iranian troops, thousands of Shia militants – armed, trained and financed by Tehran- from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen are also fighting in Syria for Assad’s regime. Tehran has dispatched special units of Shi‘a militants to the region to clear Idlib from the militants, according to some rumours. Nevertheless, Tehran has been denying that it has a military presence in Syria by saying, “only provides advisers at the request of the Syrian government.”
Saudi Arabia, the main rival of Iran in the region was never convinced by Tehran’s denial and got involved with Syrian war along with UAE. They have supported at least two radical Sunni Islamist groups; under the pretext to defend the Syrian people from Iranian-backed forces. Yet, undermining the Muslim Brotherhood-their arch-enemy- in Syria was their hidden agenda. Riyad to pursue this agenda allegedly provoking the attacks of the jihadist factions in Idlib against the Russian and Syrian bases which ironically may result in the strengthing of Tehran. The Idlib tangle is even more complicated than it seems.
“Who are Ahrar al-Sham? And who is Jaysh al-Islam?,” Prince Turki al-Faisal reportedly said to PBS in 2018. “They’re Syrians. They’re Syrians being killed by whom? They are being killed by Iranians. So we’re giving them the means to defend themselves. We support the Syrian people. The Iranians are killing the Syrian people. That’s the difference between us.”
The United States, only after two years from the start of the war was complaining that there is a no secular fighting force in rebel-controlled Syria. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority mostly by Muslim Brotherhood has led the rebellion, and their Islamist agenda irritated civilian activists who were hoping to create a civil, democratic Syria. Mainstream rebel groups could not obtain regular arms supplies thus the Islamists became the dominant power of the uprising. Obama administration hesitated to engage fully with the rebellion with an Islamic character. Although the CIA trained and supported some rebel groups that was not enough to force the Assad regime to the negotiating table especially after the intervention of Russia. Secular rebel commanders argued that Washington’s neglect and refusal to arm them with advanced weaponry created this situation.
Even though Barack Obama had called for Assad’s departure in 2011 did very little to end Assad’s reign according to the many critics in Washington. He reportedly opposed the demands to act because he thought, based on the analysis of U.S. intelligence, that Assad would fall anyway. Moreover, Obama did not want to irritate the Iranians by attacking Assad while negotiating the nuclear deal and fighting together against the ISIS. Consequently, “a secular Assad is better than an Islamic Syria,” Washington has concluded.
The Trump administration is very likely sharing the same assessment and it is known with its unwillingness to get involved with the wars in the Middle East. Yet it sees as a necessity to prevent the regime from conquering Idlib completely, which would significantly increase the influence of Assad, Moscow and especially Tehran in the region. Therefore, Washington started to support Turkey’s stance on Idlib against them. It also creates an excellent opportunity for Washington to curb the rising Russian influence and lure Ankara back to the US and NATO orbit. Yet to which extend the Trump administration is willing to support Ankara is yet to be seen.
Israel, sees the military involvement of Iran- its number one enemy in the region- to the Syrian war as a grave security threat. Tehran’s shipment of weapons to the Hezbollah is another concern for Israel. Israeli officials repeatedly underlined their opposition to Assad, as according to them he is the main reason for Iran’s presence in Syria. In addition to official declarations, Israel reportedly has been conducting intensive diplomacy with Moscow, Washington and likely with Riyad and the UAE to curb the influence of Tehran in Syria along with hundreds of airstrikes mostly targeting Iranian and Hezbollah forces. Israel has no sympathy for the radical Islamists in Idlib hence to prevent Tehran from gaining more influence in the region very likely will increase its strikes despite the warnings of Moscow.
The Astana peace process was initiated in december 2016 with the aim of put an end to the syrian conflict, turkey, russia and iran as the guarantor states. There are three deals reached within the framework of the Astana process on Idlib.
However, regime forces backed by Russia and Shia militia sized three of the zones, mainly through heavy bombardments in 2018. Eastern Ghouta, Daraa and Quneitra were also retaken in April after a two-month offensive. The only remaining de-escalation zone Idlib became the destination for thousands of rebels and civilians exiled from other areas under the reconciliation deals with the regime.
On 16 September 2018, in Sochi, the Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed on to create a buffer zone in Idlib. Here is the official text of the controversial deal. After the deal was released the analysts rightly predicted that it would be pretty difficult to separate jihadists from moderate rebels since there is no consensus among Ankara and Moscow on which organizations are accepted as a terrorist.
The number of rebels in Idlib estimated at between 20,000 and 50,000. There is no way the know how many of them are jihadists. In 2019, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which broke up with al-Qaida took the complete control of the region after long clashes with the other rival factions some of them were al-Qaida offshoots. The “Salvation Government” in Idlib that was established by the rebels is reportedly is acting under the control of the HTS as well.
The Idlib tangle will be a real litmus test for the Ankara-Moscow alliance. The two sides are continuing to negotiate on an acceptable solution to get away from the present bottleneck. Yet, although both sides keep reaffirming their adherence to the present agreements there is a huge difference among their interpretations. That might also stem from the unveiled understandings that have been reached between them. Consequently, despite the serious mistrust and hostilities if Moscow and Ankara are genuinely believed that their alliance is vital for their future interests they will find a way. Otherwise, unless a major Western intervention to cease the fire, Syria must get ready to be a platform of another deadly war between the various countries that have clashing interests. Only, the flame might burn the whole region this time.