The once sleepy city of Idlib, perched in the Syrian northwest, was supposed to be next on the battle list of the Syrian and Russian armies. They had started operations around the Idlib province in early February, which were cut short by a push towards East Ghouta in the Damascus countryside and Dara’a in the Syrian south, both of which subsequently fell to government forces. According to Russian sources, the battle of Idlib was scheduled for September 2018. It now seems to be put on hold, awaiting amendments that are yet to-be-agreed upon at an expected Russian-Turkish summit in Tehran next month.
Since their entry into the Syrian battlefield back in 2015, the Russians have resorted to violence only when dialogue hit a brick wall, always preferring “reconciliation agreements” over anything else. Unlike their Syrian and Iranian allies, they would rather avoid another battle in Idlib, which would spark off yet a new wave of refugees, at a time when Russian diplomats are working around the clock to return 5.6 million existing ones, scattered on all four corners of the globe since 2011. The Turks certainly don’t want that to happen, since they would flock the Syrian-Turkish borders, offering full cooperation.
Idlib was once high on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s wish list. Located close to his borders, he had hoped to annex it in his self-made buffer zone, which includes the border cities of Jarablus and Azaz, and the inland one of Al Bab. With its rich agricultural fields, Idlib would have been perfect for Erdogan’s project: A safe zone that keeps the Kurds and Daesh away from his borders and provides him with open space to repatriate millions of Syrian refugees presently residing in Turkey. In 2017, he was given the go-ahead to set up 12 Turkish sentry points in Idlib, patrolling the city that has been under the control of Islamic militias since 2015. Most are Turkish proxies, but they include Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) — formerly Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaida branch in Syria.
But if forced to choose between keeping Jarablus, Azaz and Afrin (which his troops overran last February), and Idlib — Erdogan would certainly choose the former. Russian President Vladimir Putin is insisting on re-taking Idlib, to secure all land west of the Euphrates River, and Erdogan will not obstruct his ambitions — certainly not after Turkish-American relations hit an all-time low last week, due to deterioration of the Turkish lira and the economic war waged on Ankara by United States President Donald Trump. The Turkish president is firmly in the Russian orbit now, and willing to walk an extra mile — in Idlib or elsewhere, to please Putin.
In mid-August, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov landed in Ankara, where he discussed economics — and Idlib — with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. The Turks agreed to quarantine their proxies in Idlib, separating them from foreign fighters and Al Nusra. To make the differentiation clear, they have been tasked with setting up their own militia, called The National Liberation Front, composed of 70,000 fighters from prominent armed groups like Suqoor Al Sham, Jaysh Al Ahrar, the Free Idlib Army, and the Damascus Gathering of militiamen who fled the Damascus countryside last March, refusing to join the Russian-led reconciliation process. Leading the group is a military commander from Idlib named Fadlallah Al Hajji of Faylak Al Sham, a prominent Turkish protege. His coalition will be provided with arms by the Turks to fight Daesh and Al Nusra only — under the watchful eye of the Russian army.
It is unclear what will happen to them when the battles are over. Will they be given the choice to surrender their arms, and either join the army or return to civilian life? Or will they get killed? Turkey wants them rewarded with a pardon and dignified reincorporation into public life, promising that they won’t take up arms again. Damascus, however, wants them all dead.
The chances of Turkey opening its borders to battle-hardened terrorists from all corners of Syria is slim, however, if not impossible. The city of Idlib is presently composed of three million people, half of whom are refugees from other parts of the country, who were shipped to Idlib by the Russians over the past three years. This group includes foreign fighters from China, Pakistan and Afghanistan — members of either Al Qaida or Daesh. The Turkish-Russian agreement mentions that these warriors have to die in Idlib, while Syrian fighters need to be singled out to do the job on their behalf. For now, the 12 Turkish military points will provide them with logistical support and intelligence cooperation.
A tentative deadline for what to do with Idlib has been fixed for early September, where the presidents of Turkey, Russia, and Iran are expected to meet. One option is for the Russians to start re-taking Idlib, one step-at-a-time, with or without Turkish consent. Battlefield developments have proven that they are far more superior than all the Syrian armed groups and can eventually crush them like they did in East Ghouta. If the Russians insist on postponement or delay, the Syrians and Iran can go to battle alone — with no Russian air cover — which would be very unwise. They can rely on Hezbollah, or nearby Kurdish militias who are dying for a chance to take on the Turks, after their crushing defeat in Afrin last February. The third and wisest option is for the Turkish-backed militias to be given a green light to finish off Al Nusra and Al Qaida in Idlib, but answers still need to be found as to what happens to them the day after?
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.