Russia and the Syrian regime began a fierce military campaign on Idlib and Hamah in northern Syria this week in areas controlled by armed opposition groups close to Turkey.
Dozens of civilians were killed and hospitals, schools and vital locations were destroyed in an operation aiming to expel opposition forces from an area where three million displaced refugees have fled to escape regime control in recent years.
Russia played a critical role during the military onslaught, while Iranian militias fought alongside regime forces.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a NGO, the campaign that began in late April has thus far killed 327 people, including 119 civilians, mostly during Russian air raids and regime bombings.
Some 104 regime soldiers have been killed, and according to UN officials 290,000 people have been displaced due to the appalling conditions in Idlib.
While the armed opposition close to Turkey is present in the area, there is also a strong presence of Tahrir Al-Sham (Al-Nusra Front) forces fighting against the opposition and preventing it from imposing law and order in the region.
The militia withdrew from many areas under its control in the Hamah suburbs without a fight to the advantage of regime troops.
These areas were surrendered without resistance, including Al-Madeeq, which Al-Nusra took by force at the beginning of the year. It was handed over to the regime without a shot being fired.
The opposition says this is proof that the Al-Nusra Front is coordinating with the regime on strategic issues and serves it in key battles. Listed as a terrorist group, it continues to battle the opposition and refuses to forge a strategic alliance.
Leader of the Al-Nusra Front Abu Mohamed Al-Jolani met with activists in northern Syria to explain why his fighters had surrendered Al-Madeeq and other areas without a fight. He said these areas were “a flank that the regime had taken advantage of” and that “civilians in the area prevented the Al-Nusra fighters from building fortifications.”
He denied any collusion or agreements with Russia or the regime.
Two days later, Al-Jolani appeared in a video saying that “we are calling on anyone who can carry arms or anyone who can perform his jihad duty to go into battle.” He added that the recent escalation “is a result of failed political conferences that have aimed to circumvent the Syrian Revolution from Astana to Sochi.”
The campaign by the regime and Russia was the “death certificate of previous deals and conferences and anyone who sponsored or participated in them”.
He said that the military onslaught in Idlib had revealed that “military might is the only course” and that “the revolutionaries have every right to bomb [Russia’s Al-Hameem] military base, which has caused the deaths of the Syrian people.”
“If the Russians want to stop the attacks on Al-Hameem, they must stop supporting the regime and killing the Syrian people,” Al-Jolani said.
There have been conflicting reports that there is a Russian-Turkish agreement on operations in northern Syria, but also that the regime does not support Turkey’s interests there and is taking over the area at the expense of factions supported by Turkey.
James Jeffrey, US envoy to Syria and the International Coalition against Islamic State (IS), commented that “Russia has informed us that this attack is limited in response to repeated attacks by Tahrir Al-Sham on the Al-Hameem military base. Even though the operation is limited, it has killed hundreds of people and displaced tens of thousands. It must stop.”
However, the campaign has not stopped, and Washington has not used its influence to prevent more deaths among civilians. It does not seem to have pressured Moscow to change its policy of a military response against any area under the control of the opposition.
Jeffrey told the press that the US “is not intent on changing the Al-Assad regime,” referring to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but also that Washington supports “UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which was approved by Russia, demanding the amendment of the constitution, elections under UN supervision and regime change” in Syria.
“The US wants change and insists on change. Our policy of applying pressure will not change until the Syrian state behaves differently to its people and neighbours. This is the policy, not removing a specific person,” he said.
The statement implies that the US position towards the Al-Assad regime has started to retreat, but that this reversal is not based on a strategic plan. It does not support or oppose the regime, which the Russians are happy with since they are trying to protect the Syrian regime and rehabilitate it on the global stage.
Russia seems adamant about imposing its will in Syria, although it knows that the final word will come from the US. Iran, Turkey and Israel are seeking the same goal.
Despite understandings between Russia and the US, the situation in northern Syria could trigger a dispute between them, which they have tried to avoid to maintain the balance of power in the region.
Nonetheless, the developments in northern Syria will certainly harm Turkey, which means Ankara could focus on strengthening its relations with the US in order to tilt the balance.
The US is in no hurry because it knows that other players will not overstep the mark, especially one that Russia has agreed to. Washington will procrastinate as long as the other players – Russia, Turkey and the Syrian opposition – are losing since it has made clear to Russia and Iran that the rules of the game will not change.
The US position can be viewed through the lens of the next US presidential elections, now heating up after Democrat Joe Biden announced his nomination. This means critical decisions could be postponed until after the elections, continuing the status quo among key players in Syria.
Russia may take advantage of the election period to meddle more in Syria and appear as a superpower in the absence of an effective US role in adjusting the behaviour of the regime and Iran.
Meanwhile, Turkey is changing its policies after its recent local elections, which showed there is a need to enable the ruling Justice and Development Party to reconnect with the street and bolster national unity.
This would also allow Ankara to play a role in unifying the regional powers, instead of siding with Russia and Iran in an alliance that is suspicious to the citizens of the region.
Yet, the political opposition in Syria remains largely absent for objective and subjective reasons. It has become a front to cover international and regional agreements and is waiting to be assigned a role once a settlement is reached.
The military developments in northern Syria will not change the reality on the ground and will eventually be seen as acts of repositioning by all sides. Soon they will return to the negotiating table to divide up the country along the lines allowed by the US.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Syria’s US-led repositioning