Over the last three months, the Syrian military supported by Russia has been attacking areas in northwest Syria, specifically in the Idlib province, the last stronghold of the armed opposition.
The military campaign has killed hundreds of civilians, destroyed infrastructure and services and wrecked schools and markets. Even as it has gained momentum, the purpose of the campaign has remained unclear, and none of the regional or international parties in Syria has attempted to stop it.
The escalating air strikes by regime and Russian air forces on Idlib are part of a slow war of attrition against the opposition, demonstrating the determination of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to regain control of the area.
However, this is also a war of attrition for the regime because there can be no real winners or losers in such a campaign, since nothing will swiftly change in this province which is an arena of competition between Turkey, Russia, the Syrian regime and the US.
The opposition and various local and international organisations have described events in Idlib as part of a war of “annihilation,” with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemning the “international indifference” that has allowed the continuous bombing that has forced more than 400,000 people to flee.
The UN has documented 39 attacks targeting medical facilities and staff, and at least 50 schools have been damaged due to air strikes. The UN sent the coordinates of some locations to Russia so they could be spared, but apparently to no avail.
Idlib and its surroundings have been under Syrian and Russian bombing since the end of April even though the area is part of the Russian-Turkish agreement signed in September that created a demilitarised zone.
It remained calm for about five months, but it is home to what remains of the opposition and the families of opposition combatants, and any pressure on civilians there is pressure on the opposition factions. The regime believes that its air strikes will assist in future ground operations.
Both the regime and its Russian supporters are promoting the battle for Idlib as a last campaign against the opposition, with only Idlib now preventing the regime from declaring victory in its war.
However, in reality the regime only controls half of Syria, with the rest being under the control of regional and international powers. Kurdish forces control extensive swathes in northeast Syria supported by US troops; Turkey controls many border areas and border crossings in the north with the help of opposition forces; and Iran controls areas in the west with the help of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah.
Idlib is only a small area compared to others not under regime control, and even if it succeeds in subjugating it, the regime still could not claim to control the entire country.
The presence of three million people in Idlib, the support for the armed opposition, and the US refusal to allow the regime to retake control of the area all rule out any immediate invasion, making a war of attrition the strategy of choice for the Al-Assad regime.
Turkey, which wants to prevent the expansion of separatist Syrian Kurds in the region supported by the US, has said it wants stability in Idlib. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey “is being forced to provide stability in Idlib,” adding that “the Syrian regime and the US and Europe do not have the same agenda because no other country in the world has received refugees numbering one fifth of its population.”
330,000 Syrian refugees had returned to areas secured by Turkey after operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, he said.
The statements coincided with talks between Turkey and the US about creating a safe zone in northeast Syria guaranteed by the US and UN to prevent the regime and the Syrian Kurds from expanding in the area and thus guaranteeing Turkey’s security. At the same time, the zone would guarantee Idlib’s stability and put an end to the daily destruction.
Erdogan’s words carried with them an implicit threat to the West, since he implied that Turkey does not have the capacity to take in another one or two million refugees from Idlib if the regime overruns the province and that Ankara will let these refugees pass through its territory to Europe.
This could cause the Europeans to support Turkey’s military stance in northern Syria, and Erdogan’s statements also indirectly solicit NATO support to avoid a refugee situation threatening EU borders.
The daily destruction has resulted in the Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant) group, formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front, tightening its grip in Idlib, especially as it is now the main faction fighting the regime.
It is categorised as a terrorist group that has arbitrarily abused other opposition groups, and it has given Russia and the regime more reason to bomb the area. A humanitarian catastrophe is on the horizon, warns the UN.
Russia and regime will have difficulty achieving their goals in Idlib as they have limited military capabilities on the ground. Russia has prevented pro-Iranian Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan militias from participating in the battle, perhaps due to US pressure on Moscow not to cooperate with Tehran and to decrease the Iranian presence.
Another problem for the regime and Russia is the fact that this area is open to Turkish intervention, meaning that fighters and logistical support can flow freely into the area as long as Ankara allows it.
Despite such difficulties, the regime has clearly voiced its intention of regaining control of the area, no matter what the cost. But it cannot do this without the support of Russia. Although Moscow doubts that there is a need for a major military campaign in Idlib, it has nonetheless participated in bombing infrastructure and using highly destructive weapons.
Russia and Turkey want to have a key role in deciding Idlib’s future, and as long as Russia covers up for the regime’s abuses and Turkey closes its border in the face of fleeing refugees, the civilians in the area will continue to pay the price.
What happens next will depend on the Turkish-Russian, Turkish-US and Iranian-Russian talks. As long as Moscow and Ankara do not agree on how to manage the situation, and Turkey does not gain US approval for its safe zone, the status quo in the area will continue with more destruction and displacement.
It is unlikely that Russia will provoke the US and Turkey in Idlib or that it will undermine any potential agreement with Turkey. Meanwhile, the bombardment is expected to continue, and negotiations between Moscow and Ankara will go on. A ceasefire must take place in Idlib before it is entirely decimated.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Attacks on Idlib