By YUSUF ERIM
This oped originally appear at The Jerusalem Post
Weeks of speculation regarding a Russia backed regime offensive into Syria’s last opposition stronghold of Idlib came to an end on Tuesday as Russian warplanes launched a series of airstrikes in the southwestern part of the province. Idlib has become an important piece of the Syria puzzle, since its de-escalation zone status designated by the Astana Agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran; has turned the province into a safe haven for the opposition and internally displaced refugees fleeing war and persecution by the Assad regime. The population in the province has grown exponentially from its pre-conflict state of close to half a million residents to the current size of 2.9 million people, including 1 million children according to the UN.
Turkey, who serves as the opposition’s guarantor in the Astana Process, has played an important role in this population explosion since twelve observation points set up by the Turkish military act as a deterrent against Iran backed militias and regime forces on the ground. But now as Assad has strengthened his position in the capital Damascus and up the coastal plains reaching Idlib, control of this strategic province has become a priority objective for the regime and its backers. The province has two key major highways, the M4 which connects Latakia to the east and the M5 which runs south from Aleppo to Hama and Damascus into Jordan. A regime victory in Idlib would help Assad consolidate power and also deliver a devastating defeat to the opposition, leaving it scattered in small pockets.
While Syrian regime forces continue to amass in the northwest, foreign powers warn that an all out assault on the city could spark a massive humanitarian disaster. The UN says that a regime offensive could displace as many as 800,000 people. But, where will these people go? Turkey, which already hosts an estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has sealed off its border. With refugee camps already full and an economic crisis looming, Ankara seems unwilling to absorb another wave of migration. The nearby cities of Afrin and Jarablus controlled by Turkish-backed rebels are already densely populated and don’t have the infastructure to accomodate more IDPs. Many rebels view reconcilliation and returning to regime controlled territory could result in arrest or turn into a surefire death sentence, as most distrust Assad. The only viable solution is to limit the scope of a regime office and prevent the need for a mass exodus from Idlib. Whatever happens next will mainly be decided by Russia and Turkey, as they are the lifelines for the regime and opposition, respectively.
Top level Russian and Turkish officials are scheduled to meet twice this month with the first meeting to take place in Tehran on September 7th. Turkey is pressing both Iran and Russia to respect and honor Idlib as a de-escalation zone as per their tri-lateral agreement. However, Moscow and Damascus, via Tehran, are insisting that their priority is to neutralize the terrorist groups operating in Idlib, most namely the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir ai-Sham (HTS), which is estimated to have more than 10,000 fighters in the area. The most recent round of airstrikes in the northwestern city of Jisr al-Shughour confirm that Assad’s main concern is targeting the HTS. Turkey had been working for months to disband and assimilate HTS into other more moderate groups but has been unsuccessful. Ankara recently designated the former AQ affiliate as a terrorist organization, signaling that they could be ready to isolate and neutralize the group themselves or allow for a limited regime offensive into areas controlled by HTS.
Despite being Assad’s main backer, Russian leader Vladimir Putin may been keen to pursue a pragmatic solution that helps it maintain good ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as both countries share many other mutual interests.
Despite being Assad’s main backer, Russian leader Vladimir Putin may been keen to pursue a pragmatic solution that helps it maintain good ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as both countries share many other mutual interests. If Turkey can find a way to cater to the Regime’s concerns regarding these extremists groups, Erdogan could provide the framework for a phased offensive agreement that can avert a humanitarian disaster and trigger negotiations for a political solution.
Russia is also pushing many European nations to re-open diplomatic relations with Syria and help finance its reconstruction. Part of Moscow’s narrative is that the war in Syria is winding down. This storyline would become a tough sell in the middle of a regime offensive that could spark the greatest humanitarian disaster the conflict has seen. Another important factor to consider is the presence of Turkish soldiers in the area. While Assad is highly motivated to regain control of Idlib, the last thing Russia or the regime want are accidental skirmishes with Turkish troops escalating into a much bigger problem.
The war in Syria may be winding down, but the fate of Idlib is still far from being determined. The Regime may have the upper-hand with support from Russia and Iran but the last standing de-escalation zone will prove to be tougher to crack than the previous three.
Yusuf Erim is the Turkey analyst for Turkish public broadcaster TRT World