Once famed for its vast agricultural fields and its resistance to colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century, Idlib is now a shadow of what it looked like just six years ago, both demographically and physically. The city’s old notability has long left, either to other parts of the country or beyond, mostly forced out by the collapse of ordinary life or the thousands of Islamist fighters who since 2015 have been bused to Idlib from all four corners of Syria. Entire chunks of the Idlib province have been destroyed, either riddled with the crossfire, torn apart by inter-rebel fighting, or by the aerial bombardment by the Russian Air Force. In just one month, Idlib has welcomed nearly 200,000 newcomers from Eastern Ghouta, common practice since the Russians stepped into the Syrian battlefield three years ago. After re-taking any city or town, its fighters, their families, and supporters would be put on green buses and whisked off to Idlib, often with their light arms, under the protection of Russian troops.
The long-term Russian objective was to create a failed Islamist mini-state in Idlib, one that would make Al Raqqa, the de facto capital of Daesh, look like Switzerland or Japan. The Russians reasoned that if packed with just the right number of terrorists, radicalised by displacement and disinherited by defeat, the new residents of Idlib might produce a new group, possibly far more radical than Al Qaida and Daesh. They would then showcase it to the entire world, maximising its media exposure, and then use it either to storm the province single-handedly, or cooperate on its liberation with the Americans. A deal with the United States might be difficult now that President Donald Trump has signalled his intention to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to work on Idlib with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Technically speaking, Idlib is no longer part of the “de-conflict zones” that were hammered out by Russia, Turkey and Iran at the Astana peace process in mid-2017. That agreement allowed Turkish troops to temporarily enter the province, ostensibly to keep the peace and push out extremists of Jabhat Al Nusra. It expired last November, however, three months before the Russians and Syrians jump-started a military operation against Idlib in February 2018. Apart from lip service, the Turks did nothing to prevent or stop it. It was temporarily halted at midway due to the battles of Eastern Ghouta, but is likely to resume again soon.
The Turkish leader hopes to expand the buffer zone he had carved out in the Syrian north back in 2016, which includes the border cities of Jarablus and Azaz, and the inland one of Al Bab, northeast of Aleppo. The Russians looked the other way when his troops marched across the border two years ago, ostensibly to clear out the area from any Kurdish or Daesh presence. Ultimately, he also hoped to create a zone where he could relocate millions of Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey since 2011. Last February, he marched on the city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River, lying within Russia’s sphere of influence, crushing the two powerful Kurdish groups. His advance could not have happened without an implicit go-ahead from the Russians. In return, Erdogan remained silent as Russian and Syrian troops finished off Eastern Ghouta.
The Russians are seemingly more interested in re-taking Idlib than Erdogan is at keeping it — seeing that the province cannot be kept indefinitely or incorporated into his buffer zone, being too far away from Jarablus and Azaz, much deeper within Syrian territory. He would rather walk out and get something closer in return, trying to talk the Russians into letting him advance on Manbij or the northern town of Tal Rifaat.
Like Afrin, Manbij lies in Russia’s sphere of influence, west of the Euphrates. It is the only Syrian city where all stakeholders are present; Kurds, Syrians, Turks, Russians, and Americans, who are represented through 200 military advisers stationed in Manbij since 2016. Erdogan had begged the Americans to let him expel Daesh fighters from Manbij but like the case in Al Raqqa, they said no, leaving it to the Kurds. In mid-February, however, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed in Ankara and said that the US army would co-administer Manbij with the Russians — which was music to the ears of the Erdogan team. That agreement would lead to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units leaving Manbij and crossing to Kurdish cities east of the Euphrates. Tillerson has since been fired, however, and no steps have been taken towards implementing his agreement with the Turks. Far from it, Trump is likely to even walk away from it. Even if he does indeed withdraw US troops from Syria, he will continue to generously support the Kurds with arms and funds, seeing them as strategic partners and proxies in the war on terror. This will undoubtedly further enrage the Turkish President, who will undoubtedly turn to the Russians. If Moscow looks the other way as he advances on Manbij, will he reciprocate and whistle to the wind as Russian and Syrian troops move on Idlib, just like he did in Ghouta last month and Aleppo back in 2016?
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.