Dozens of civilians were killed in heavy bombardments carried out by Syrian regime air forces on the province of Idlib in the north-west of the country on 11 August.
Air strikes and barrel bombs also wiped out residential neighbourhoods in Orum Al-Kubra in the adjacent province of Aleppo.
Idlib falls within the “de-escalation zones” agreed on at the Astana Conference on Syria and signed up to by Turkey, Russia and Iran.
However, despite the establishment of Turkish military check points in and around the borders of the de-escalation zones and Russian military check points alongside regime lines, fears are mounting that any Turkish military withdrawal could endanger their lives.
Residents of these areas could then find themselves forced into a confrontation with regime forces or the need to surrender in a scenario similar to those that have taken place in other areas in Syria, such as in Ghouta and the south of the country.
The Syrian opposition has responded to the regime’s massacres in Idlib by forcing its militias to agree to a ceasefire. Turkey has urged the opposition to stop the shelling and has promised Russia that regime aerial and ground bombings will cease.
The province of Idlib hosts some three million people, including those forced to flee from their homes in other parts of the country. The regime had earlier given opposition members the choice of either surrendering or fleeing to Idlib when it conducted its Russian-backed attacks.
Idlib is the last stronghold of the armed Syrian opposition. Largely occupied by Turkey, it is considered an extension to areas held by the Turkish army that Ankara occupied in order to expel Kurdish militias.
The opposition has differentiated itself from the Al-Nusra Front, declared by the US as a terrorist group, and it has been trying to maintain a united front to fend off regime attacks.
Three main factors define the situation in the city, the first being the relationship between the Turkish forces and the Syrian opposition as Turkey regards Idlib as a first line of defence of its own borders.
The second factor is the relationship between the factions on the ground that share no united ideology that would enable them to work together on building a stable administration in the area.
The third is the Syrian regime’s desire to control the opposition’s last stronghold even if it has to kill tens of thousands of civilians to achieve this end.
Fearing the latter scenario, the UN has warned against attacks on Idlib and expressed concerns about the fate of its three million inhabitants. It has also called upon the three guarantors of the Astana Conference to avoid any confrontation.
Opposition sources said that armed factions in Idlib had agreed to discuss allowing Russian military police into the city in return for halting the Syrian regime’s bombardment of the area and restricting regime forces.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew to Ankara on Monday for a two-day visit to his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. Among the items on the agenda was the potential deployment of Russian military police in Idlib in return for the end of Turkish influence.
Lavrov’s visit coincided with Moscow’s announcement of a quartet meeting comprising representatives of Russia, France, Turkey and Germany in Ankara in the near future to “discuss the Syrian crisis”.
Together with its allies Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime is trying to exploit Turkey’s domestic crisis, a result of the collapse of the Turkish lira and its thorny relationship with the US, in order to carry out attacks on Idlib that may drive the opposition to surrender.
However, Turkey will not let go of Idlib easily. It is holding on to the check points it has set up in and around the city, and its army continues to send military reinforcements to the area.
Ankara has assured the Syrian opposition that it is ready to provide arms and ammunition in the case of a ground attack by regime forces on the condition that any military action is under a single command.
The armed Syrian opposition thus has the opportunity to maintain its presence in Idlib if it can unite its ranks, though this seems unlikely.
Idlib now awaits its fate. Either it will become a safe haven or “green zone” hosting anti-regime forces, or Turkey will give it up to Russia. Should the latter take place, the city will be easy prey for regime forces, and thousands of civilians are likely to be killed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The battle for Idlib