Ferocious clashes continued this week between Syrian forces and rebel fighters in Idlib.
Response coordinators in northern Syria said on Monday that Syrian and Russian warplanes had carried out 321 air raids on the city of Idlib and its surrounding area in one week, including 232 strikes by the Russian Air Force.
Syria Civil Defence personnel (White Helmets) warned that continuing to target Idlib would lead to a grave humanitarian crisis in the region. According to response coordinators, in one week more than 31,000 people have fled the area, 73 per cent of them women.
Armed opposition factions allied with Turkey, as well as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) forces, launched a counterattack on regime troops causing serious losses, as Syrian forces attempted to take control of the surrounding countryside. They also foiled an attempt by regime forces and militias to surge forward.
Raed Saleh, director of the White Helmets, said the ceasefire agreement signed by Turkey and Russia that began in the de-escalation zone in Idlib on 10 January now “appears to have collapsed.”
“The ceasefire went relatively well amid assurances in the area that people could begin to return,” Saleh said. “However, this reassurance ended with the new air strikes. He said that 60 per cent of the victims of the conflict in the area over the past eight months had been women and children. More than one million people have fled Idlib, the last main rebel stronghold in Syria, since April.
The Syrian army backed by Russia wants to take control of the Aleppo-Damascus Road and the Aleppo-Latakia Road in the region.
Opposition activists and media said that armed opposition factions in Idlib had dealt “serious blows” to Russian forces in Idlib, including by attacking a Russian military operations complex near the city and killing at least six Russian military personnel including four officers and injuring several more.
One of these was identified as a war correspondent, but Moscow did not confirm the losses. The Russian Defence Ministry said that rebels had carried out several concentrated attacks, but that these had been repulsed by government forces. Moscow reported that Russian forces had dealt a blow to rebels, killing 50. Some 12 Syrian regime troops were also killed and 24 injured.
According to Syrian activists, the rebels are using drones to launch attacks, while fighters affiliated with the opposition Free Syrian Army told the Italian news agency AKI that they had new supplies of more advanced weapons and anti-tank and anti-armour missiles and could block advances by regime forces.
According to monitors on the ground, the armed opposition has carried out 70 airstrikes in Idlib and its suburbs against regime troops that are trying to take control of the area.
The Russian media reported that the Russian operations centre “on the outskirts of Idlib was heavily targeted in a surprise attack” that resulted in serious losses. Moscow said that since its direct military intervention in Syria began at the end of September 2015, it has lost 120 personnel.
The “national army” of the interim Syrian government affiliated with the rebels is present in the Idlib province, and this announced at the end of 2019 that all armed opposition factions in northwest Syria had joined it, including forces in Dar Al-Furat and Ghosn Al-Zaytoun where Turkey is militarily active.
They were joined by the Syria Liberation Front composed of Free Syrian Army factions including the Jabha Shamiya, Faylaq Al-Sham, Ahrar Al-Sham, and others. Areas under the national army’s control overlap with those controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front), which is listed as a terrorist group by the international community because it is connected to Al-Qaeda.
Saeed Moqbel, a Syrian political analyst, said that “Russia insists on cleansing the area from armed factions labeled as terrorists, which includes all opposition groups across the spectrum. Turkey rejects this Russian strategy and argues that extremism is very limited, making the blanket attacks on Idlib by the regime and Russia unacceptable.”
In what appeared as a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Putin had stated that cooperation between the two countries on Idlib must continue.
“They say the moderate opposition are terrorists and that these groups hurt Russia,” Erdogan said “But I told Putin that if you see these groups as terrorists, look at Al-Assad who has terrorised the entire country.”
“They are fleeing for their lives. The picture of a mother with her six children seeking refuge chills our blood. How can you call these groups terrorists,” he demanded.
The fate of Idlib now lies in the hands of Turkey and Russia, with one supporting the Syrian regime and the other opposing it. Both parties have interests in this area of Syria, and at the same time enjoy a strategic, albeit transient, relationship. This will be difficult to leapfrog and bring the dispute to a head.
It is likely that Turkey will agree to the armed opposition redeploying, and in return Russia will accept a middle-ground solution as it moves closer to opening and securing the Aleppo-Damascus Road, a main thoroughfare that connects northern and southern Syria.
“The problem is that Idlib has become a battleground for settling scores, or more accurately a stage for gaining influence. The fuel for this battleground are civilians, with more than one million feeling to areas that are safer than Syria,” Moqbel said.
“The refugee influx is certain to be followed by demographic changes, which is when Iran will step in to take advantage of the chaos to benefit its sectarian schemes.”
More than three million people currently live in Idlib, many of them refugees and most of them women and children. They are sleeping outside in the bitter winter cold without shelter or basic necessities. They face the threat of unending displacement as the victims of the failure to reach a political solution to the conflict in Syria and end the military operations in the country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.