Another winter in Idlib

Bassel Oudat , Friday 23 Aug 2019

Many unanswered questions loom as battles continue for control of the northern Syrian province of Idlib

Air strikes on Idlib
Air strikes on Idlib, Syria on 17 August 2019 (Photo: AFP)

Battles have been continuing to rage in Idlib in northern Syria, the last stronghold of the armed Syrian opposition, with forces loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and supported by forces from the Russian military base in Hmeimim and Hizbullah militias continuing their campaign under the cover of Russian air strikes on strategic sites in the region.

Over the past week, these forces have taken several strategic towns on the highway connecting Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia in northern, western and eastern Syria.

Earlier this month, Turkey, Russia and Iran declared a truce at the end of the 13th round of the Astana Meetings between the opposition and regime in and around Idlib, but the regime and Russia ignored these promises.

They carried out heavy air strikes against opposition-controlled areas and adopted a new strategy of night attacks under Russian air cover in areas the opposition believed would be demilitarised zones under agreements between Turkey and the US.

The opposition has no night-time combat capabilities, such as the American night-vision binoculars which have been effective over the past few months.

Opposition factions, including those loyal to Turkey, tried to appeal to Ankara, and faction leaders met with Turkish officers to discuss the latest developments in Idlib and the advance of Al-Assad’s troops supported by Russia.

However, the talks were inconclusive, despite statements by Turkish officials that their country condemned the escalation by the regime and Russia and would not allow the annihilation of the armed Syrian opposition in and around Idlib.

However, the military campaign by the regime and Russia has continued, with constant air strikes and attacks using all types of weapons.

The war between the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran on the one side and the armed opposition on the other has been particularly brutal, and both sides have suffered losses and imprisoned combatants, including a regime pilot whose plane was shot down, with hundreds of civilians being killed and hundreds of thousands fleeing the area.

Response coordinators in northern Syria have described people fleeing the area as “the largest wave of displacement in Syria” since the start of the revolution in 2011.

Some 124,617 people fled in the first four days of the latest campaign, including 19,231 families, raising the number of refugees and displaced from Idlib and Hamah since the start of the military campaign in February to 853,416, including 131,354 families.

Monitors said that the regime attacks were “methodical” in targeting civilians and called on the international community to redefine terrorist crimes and how to identify those responsible for them in the light of the latest attacks. They called on the UN to shoulder its responsibility towards civilians in northwest Syria.

The escalation began after the latest round of the Astana Meetings, which failed to make progress on political issues in Syria, the forming of a constitutional committee, the release of prisoners, or even the imposition of a temporary ceasefire.

Russia has not met any of the opposition’s demands but has complied with everything the regime wants, and the attacks on Idlib did not take the opposition by surprise. They expected to be pressured with a military solution imposed on the factions that refused the outcome of the Sochi Talks sponsored by Russia.

Moscow wants the Sochi Talks to replace the Geneva track recognised by the international community.

The Idlib factions reject the Sochi Agreement and refuse to withdraw their heavy weapons to create a demilitarised zone guaranteed and monitored by Russia, since Moscow is “an enemy not a guarantor,” as these factions describe it.

The regime and Russia have therefore attacked Idlib, which also provides them with an opportunity to tighten their siege and eliminate the factions.

However, the resistance to the regime has been greater than expected and has resulted in great destruction and slow progress for Al-Assad’s troops, despite the air raids in the area and the massive mobilisation by the regime and Hizbullah militias.

Ahmed Hamadah, a Syrian military analyst, said the regime and Russia “do not believe in a political solution. Everything that was reached in Astana and Sochi aim to disrupt the political solution to move to a military one and become the same as in southern Syria where de facto solutions were imposed by Russia.”

Hamadah said that Turkey’s silence about areas holding factions that Turkey supports was due to Ankara’s “attempt to abide by the Sochi Agreement. But Russia’s military appetite wants to impose a new reality on the ground and thus obstruct any truce or political agreement.”

The strikes in northern Syria have coincided with three important factors. First, they coincide with talks between Turkey and the US to create a safe zone in northeast Syria along the border that will guarantee that separatist Kurds remain distant from the Turkish border, guaranteeing Turkey’s national security.

Turkish officials say they have reached understandings in these talks, but Ankara, which wants to gain a secure border in northeast Syria, is losing control of the northwest border due to fighting in Idlib where the regime and Russia are regaining their control.

Second, there will be a four-way summit meeting including Russia, Germany, France and Turkey that the Turks are trying to host in late August or early September. According to a spokesman for the Turkish presidency, the meeting will discuss regional security issues, most notably the situation in Syria.

Third, there is the three-way summit between Russia, Turkey and Iran slated for 11 September in Turkey, which some Russian observers believe will result in the formation of a Syrian constitutional committee to draft a new constitution.

They believe that by 11 September the opposition will have bowed to Russian demands on the composition of this committee and talks between the regime and opposition will have started.

All three factors imply that the end of the opposition in Idlib is near and that Russia will force it to begin implementing a political solution on Russia’s terms.

They also imply that Turkey is being complacent on the border issue in return for guarantees on what it sees as the threat to the region from the separatist Kurds.

Finally, they imply that the political and armed opposition has little support and has been abandoned by its foreign and domestic supporters, causing it to surrender to conditions that do not achieve a fraction of its demands.

None of these things may turn out to be true, however.

The only really unclear position is that of the US, which is monitoring the situation and programming the wars in Syria remotely through proxies and other countries, pulling strings that are almost invisible but are nevertheless very sturdy.

According to Syrian analysts, it is unlikely that the US will allow the regime to control northwest Syria without paying a price that serves it.

Accordingly, the scope of any deal is unclear: will the opposition be reined in, or will its influence be limited to a marginal area, or will it be curbed and placed under Russian oversight?

These questions cannot be answered by the military movements on the ground. The political opposition cannot answer them since they have little information and have limited influence on the scene.

The foreign countries intervening in Syria cannot answer them either, and it is unlikely that any answers will come before another winter comes to the region.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Another winter in Idlib

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