The fate of the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib may decide the future of the uneasy alliance between Russia, Turkey and Iran. A trilateral summit on the issue is expected to take place in Tehran early next month, while a deadline set by Moscow for Ankara, a major stakeholder in Idlib, to make up its mind is fast approaching.
The United Nations and other international agencies, as well as western governments, have warned that a regime push into the province will result in a civilian bloodbath. But Moscow says it will back a military operation to “liberate” the province from “terrorists”.
It’s a messy issue for all parties concerned. Most of the rebel fighters in Idlib, numbering anywhere between 40,000 and 70,000, have been evacuated with their families from other provinces in Syria; the last being Daraa and Qunaitra in the south. And it is an undisputed fact that a large part of the province is under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) — formerly Jabhat Al Nusra, which was associated with Al Qaida.
There are other terrorist groups as well. Ankara, which has observation posts in Idlib and is backing a number of rebel groups, says that it is difficult to separate terrorists from others. Also, the province is home to three million civilians, who will not be able to flee if a military operation is launched by the regime.
But Moscow and Tehran want the regime to recapture the last major stronghold of the rebels in a bid to declare the seven-year civil war over. If Idlib falls that will leave parts of northeastern Syria, where United States forces are entrenched, out of government control. Syrian Kurdish rebels, aligned with the Americans, have initiated talks with Damascus to pave the way for a peaceful handover of their territory in return for self-rule.
That is one key reason why Turkish troops continue to occupy parts of northern Syria; Afrin and Al Bab being the most important. Ankara’s top priority is to prevent Syrian Kurds from making any political gains that may entice Turkey’s own Kurds to demand the same.
Russia, Turkey and Iran had struck an alliance in Syria few years ago, each for its own narrow interests. The spat between Turkey and the US, which got worse recently, has pushed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan closer to both Moscow and Tehran. Russian President Vladimir Putin is navigating his way in Syria and the region with the support of beleaguered Tehran. Iran has come under tremendous pressure since US President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and re-imposed tough sanctions on the Iranian regime.
For Putin, the sooner he declares the end of the war in Syria the better. Moscow wants to initiate plans for refugee return and embrace an agreement to start reconstruction work in Syria. But the US wants Moscow’s commitment to limit or end Iranian presence in Syria; a priority for its ally Israel. This is a condition that Putin knows he cannot deliver; at least not just now.
Turkey’s stakes in Idlib are enormous. It wants to hold on to that card so that it can have a say on post-war arrangements in Syria; especially where the Kurdish issue is concerned. But its shaky alliance with Russia and Iran may crumble if Moscow allows the regime to launch a military operation in Idlib, which, by the way, has been designated as a de-escalation zone as part of the Astana process.
To make things more complicated for all players, rebel groups in Idlib have recently announced the formation of a National Liberation Front alliance, which includes Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel groups and HTS fighters. The head of HTS, Abu Mohammad Al Joulani, warned his allies last week not to negotiate with the Syrian regime or embrace so-called reconciliation deals. He said that there will be no repetition of what had happened in the south, referring to deals that ended rebel presence in Daraa.
The stalemate could hasten the military assault which, according to the UN, could result in the displacement of more than 700,000 civilians. If a similar scenario to what happened in Eastern Ghouta earlier this year takes place in Idlib, the level of destruction and carnage will be unprecedented.
With nowhere else to go, Turkey will be under pressure to open a humanitarian corridor across its borders. But that will mean that rebel fighters will also end up inside Turkish territory. Those who are unable to escape will fight to death rather than surrender to the regime. Meanwhile, there have been multiple reports of rebel infighting and chaos inside Idlib. Ankara hopes that FSA rebels may be able to defeat HTS fighters and allow for a political settlement in Idlib.
All eyes will now be on the trilateral meeting that will take place in Tehran in the coming weeks. There is too much at stake for the three countries, least of all the fate of their alliance in Syria. But if all fails, the assault on Idlib will mark another bloody chapter in Syria’s civil war.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.