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Idlib, a battle field that is forgotten by the world

As the world turns its back on Idlib, Russia, Iran and Turkey play havoc with the town and its population facing catastrophe

Image Credit: AFP
Syrians who fled from the outskirts of southern Idlib due to conflict between government forces and opposition fighters take shelter following their arrival at the make-shift camp of Kalbeed near the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syria-Turkey border.
Gulf News

Beirut: The wobbly tripartite agreement over the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, reached last year between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, has effectively collapsed. Backed by massive Russian air power, government troops have been rapidly advancing on the Idlib province since late 2017, triggering a counter-offensive by the armed opposition on Thursday, spearheaded by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), a broad coalition of Islamist groups commanded by Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (formerly known as Jabhat Al Nusra).

A once-sleepy agricultural city, Idlib fell to Islamist rebels in mid-2015. Since then, all reconciliation projects have led to the transportation of thousands of fighters from different towns and cities across Syria into the Idlib province, hoping to create a “mini-Afghanistan” where the Russians can loop all Islamist groups, in anticipation of their collective annihilation. They were allowed to enter Idlib in convoys of green buses, with their light arms, under supervision of the United Nations.

An opposition fighter fires a gun in Al Tamanah in Idlib province

Al Nusra fighters say that they have re-taken 16 out of 135 villages captured by government troops over the past two weeks — a claim denied by Russian and Syrian military sources. The fighting has caused severe damage to the infrastructure of Idlib, whipped up a high death toll, and led to the displacement of 100,000 out of 2 million people, according to BBC. Clearly, the military operation will not stop at the gates of the province and will last until the city is re-taken completely, being the last urban stronghold of the armed opposition in the seven-year Syrian conflict. Valery Gerasimov, the commander of Russian forces in Syria, called for Tahrir Al Sham’s “elimination,” saying that would be his top priority in 2018.

Russian warplanes have been striking mainly at the rebel-held towns of Khan Shaikhoun and Saraqeb, raising outcry from the Turkish Government, whose troops marched into Idlib earlier last October, as part of the “de-conflict zones” reached at the Astana talks in Kazakhstan. The original plan was to deploy 5,000 Turkish troops into Idlib to drive out Al Nusra, positioning themselves as part of the peacekeeping troops monitoring three other “de-conflict zones” in southern Syria, along the border with Jordan, east of Damascus, and north of Homs in central Syria.

Turkey wanted similar status to that of the Russians, who have deployed over 1,000 military police in the countryside of Aleppo, Dera’a, and Damascus, in addition to their heavyweight presence on the Syrian coast, at the Hmeimeem base. Ankara hoped that Idlib follow the same scenario of Jarablus and Azaz on the Syrian-Turkish borders, which were overrun by the Turks in the summer of 2016, creating a buffer to keep away both Kurdish warriors and militants from Daesh.

The Russians looked the other way, back then, and in return, Ankara did nothing as Moscow and Damascus re-took western Aleppo in December 2016.

People look a damaged building in Idlib. (AFP)

Today, Ankara fears that the continued fighting will not only deal a severe blow to the Turkish-backed armed groups, ahead of a “national dialogue conference” scheduled for the Black Sea resort of Sochi on January 29, but it will also bring thousands of fleeing civilians to its neighbouring borders with Syria, swelling the already massive refugee problem within Turkey.

Amer Elias, a Damascus-based political analyst and member of the Baath Party, told Gulf News: “There was no violation of the Astana Process. The de-conflict zones agreement had a lifeline of six months. It was reached in May and expired last November, weeks before the Syrian Army and its allies started their operation in the southern countryside of Idlib.”

 There was no violation of the Astana Process. The de-conflict zones agreement had a lifeline of six months. It was reached in May and expired last November...”

 - Amer Elias | Political analyst 

Jennifer Cafarella, the Senior Intelligence Planner at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, disagrees, saying: “The pro-regime offensive does violate the Astana de-escalation zone in spirit. The debate over which group (rebel or Al Qaida) the pro-regime forces is fighting is in some ways irrelevant. The Turks expected that the deal would prevent any offensive into Idlib, and they are responding accordingly.”

When the operation started three weeks ago, several analysts predicted that its prime objective was securing the Abu Duhour Military Airport, located on the easternmost edge of the Idlib province, which the Turks had wanted to use as an observation post. Government troops are now on the verge of re-taking it completely.

An invisible line seemed to separate the spheres of Russian and Turkish influence, mutually agreed upon by Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin — until now — running alongside the Aleppo-Homs Highway. Everything west of the road was theoretically supposed to be left to the Turks to man and handle, with Astana blessings. Two blotches of land complicated the patchwork, one in the south for the opposition and another in the north, west of the old Aleppo railway, which ran deep into regime territory. Nearly everything between the railway and the Homs-Aleppo road was supposed to have been earmarked for the Turks — or so they believed.

“Russia and Iran must stop the Syrian regime,” fumed Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after summoning the Russian and Iranian ambassadors in Ankara on January 9, where a formal complaint was filed by the Turkish Government regarding developments in Idlib. He warned that continuation of the offensive could thwart peace talks in Sochi later this month, claiming that it was the “moderate opposition” being eliminated in Idlib, and not Jabhat Al Nusra.

If the battles continue, Turkey might refuse to attend talks in Sochi and disrupt the Astana Process, where it had been given equal status as “guarantor” of the ceasefire, along with Russia and Iran. If it does boycott Sochi talks, then so would scores of armed groups that are backed by Ankara.

The last military offensive of such magnitude took place in the northern city of Aleppo in December 2016. Half of Aleppo City was under regime control, however, which is not the case in Idlib, which is fully with the opposition since 2015. The situation is also different, adds Cafarella, “because the regime and its backers cannot impose a siege (on Idlib). The fight in the countryside will therefore likely ebb and flow.” She wrapped up saying: “The world is silent because it long ago gave up in Syria, if it ever really intended to fight.”

2 million residents in the Idlib province, 30,000 of them being refugees from the Aleppo countryside.

1.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance.

100,000 displaced since November 1, 2017.

150,000 refugees have arrived on the Syrian-Turkish border since mid-November 2017.

8 hospitals destroyed, including Al Rahma (Khan Shaikhoun), Orient Hospital (Kaf Nabol), Obstetrics Hospital (Al Tah Village).