With Russian support the proposed assault on the Syrian province of Idlib could be one of the bloodiest of the war.
Idlib is the last outpost of significant rebel control. It’s 2.5 million civilians, many who are internally displaced, may face a determined regime campaign to conquer the territory no matter the outcome.
Idlib does not resemble an ordinary province, it has hundreds of thousands of people living in camps or out in the open, people who are already the victims of the regime, Iranian troops and Russian bombs.
As troops amassed on the border, civilians were advised to accept “reconciliation” or find themselves under heavy bombardment. Russia has now agreed to form a demilitarised zone with Turkey which will be policed by both Turkish and Russian troops. Russia has been able to make these arrangements with Turkey despite them being formally on opposite sides in the war.
Russia and Turkey want all rebels and their weaponry to leave the zone by 10 October. The likelihood of direct conflict between the two countries is now less likely but whether the zone will hold and if this will stop an outright assault on Idlib seems unlikely. Such a move will be welcomed internationally but the UN and Western leaders are paralysed over their attitude to the almost inevitable outcome — that Assad has won this war.
Idlib is under the control of different factions, the largest and best-organised being Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian based Al-Qaeda aligned group. Turkey has lobbied heavily for the assault to focus solely on HTS, joining the UN and US in labelling them a terrorist organisation.
Turkey’s motives here are clear — they provide direct support for the anti-HTS alliance, the National Liberation Front (NLF) which includes two of the other larger Islamist groups — Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Brigades.
Idlib had previously been categorised as a de-escalation zone, a situation which suited Turkey. Idlib borders Turkey and the border was kept clear of both the regime and the Kurdish forces they have been so determined to drive out of Afrin. Turkey may now support a version of the assault on Idlib but what it really wants to stop is a further influx of refugees, adding to the 3.5 million Syrians that have fled already to Turkey.
Alongside the Iranian troops and Russian air support the regime may have another ally — the Kurdish PYD. They are keen to retake Afrin after the vicious Turkish assault which seized the territory and quickly moved to repress and destroy any semblance of Kurdish control. While the PYD may use the distraction of Turkish intervention in Idlib to retake Afrin, they may believe they will do damage to Turkey’s support in Syria, if in the future they fight alongside the regime against Islamist rebels.
The de-escalation zone meant that Idlib was able to preserve some of the early gains of the uprisings in Syria for longer. Local councils existed and even now there are demonstrations against the regime’s planned attack, although how far these are independent from various rebel factions is difficult to guage.
HTS can claim 10,000 fighters and is undoubtedly hostile to any form of secular governance. It has imposed itself on the area, taken over institutions and instituted its own Sharia courts, imposed strict dress codes and forced widows to live with male relatives. Leila al-Shami reports that a founder of an independent radio station suffered an attempted assassination as did Ghalya Rahal, founder of Mazaya, which ran women’s centres.
But the situation in Idlib cannot be improved by a regime takeover. Forced conscription, executions and imprisonment will be used by the regime as they were in Ghouta and Daraa. As it is Islamists who control the guns and are the only capable force of defending against regime attacks, further assaults are likely to act as recruiting sergeants for the Islamists. Such a vicious cycle has meant that much of the humanitarian aid provided to Idlib is at risk, as the UN are uneasy over who will control it once it reaches Idlib.
As Assad has consolidated power the international focus has moved to reconstruction and because those powers believe reconstruction will only happen under the current regime.
What this means for Syrian civilians, refugees and the internally displaced is an ongoing humanitarian crisis supported by Russia and Iran.