After nine years of civil war, the fighting over who controls Syria has come down to one province: opposition-held Idlib, in the northwest.
Backed by Russian air power, forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad have advanced on the area.
Tensions soared after an airstrike Feb. 27 killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers. Because the drive leaves rebels and civilians caught in the crossfire with little room to flee inside Syria, it raises the specter of enormous bloodshed and a massive refugee exodus toward neighboring Turkey.
The showdown has put Russia in conflict with Turkey, after the two countries worked for years to contain the havoc of the war.
1. Who controls Idlib?
Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, a breakaway faction of Al Qaeda, has emerged as the dominant force in Idlib after other rebel groups were crushed in relentless bombings by Russia and regime forces. Its fighters are well-trained and battle-hardened and are estimated to number 20,000 in combination with those of several other Al Qaeda affiliated groups. Turkey is backing an estimated 40,000 other opposition forces who are loosely organized and deeply divided. They are struggling to stand their ground in the hope of securing a meaningful role in future peace talks. The likelihood of that happening diminishes as government forces advanced.
2. Why is Idlib heating up now?
Because of the potential for human catastrophe, the province was declared a de-escalation zone along with three other areas under a 2017 agreement among Russia, Turkey and Iran, the outside powers warring in the country. Military posts were established in the province to monitor flare-ups of violence. Government troops, with Russian air support, recaptured the other zones through a combination of force and negotiated surrenders.
In Idlib, Turkey said it persuaded the rebels to remove heavy weapons from a buffer zone under a 2018 agreement, though Russia wasn’t fully satisfied. Frustrated by a lack of progress on eliminating the rebel threat, Russia accused Turkey of failing to abide by its agreements on Idlib and justified the advance on the holdout as an anti-terrorism operation. Russia denied responsibility for the Feb. 27 airstrike, saying Turkish troops had been “within the ranks of terrorist groups” that came under fire from Syrian forces.
3. What are Turkey’s concerns?
Turkey has already absorbed 3.6 million refugees from Syria, more than any other country, with all the social and economic strains that entails. Idlib’s population has nearly tripled since the war dislocated half of all Syrians. With approximately 3 million people now living there, and close to a million forced from their homes in recent months by Russian airstrikes and regime artillery, Turkey fears a massive new wave of newcomers. It’s frantically building shelters within Syria and doesn’t plan to let more refugees cross the frontier. One of Turkey’s main concerns is that jihadists could pose as civilians and constitute a security threat if allowed inside its borders.
4. What has Turkey done?
Turkey, which deployed military observers to Idlib under the 2017 accord, sent thousands of troops to the province in February as advancing Syrian forces backed by Russian aircraft encircled four of its observer posts. Turkey, a member of NATO, confronted Syrian forces with artillery fire and appealed to U.S. and European allies for support. It asked the U.S. for a pair of Patriot missile-defense batteries to be deployed on the Syrian border to deter Russian airstrikes. The U.S. has been at odds with Turkey over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile-defense system, which the U.S. says can help Russia gather critical intelligence.
5. What’s at stake for Russia in Idlib?
Russia’s goal has always been to help Assad reassert control over all Syrian territory. Recapturing Idlib would allow the Syrian government to expand links between the capital, Damascus, and the former commercial hub Aleppo, and to declare final victory in the war.
Assad would still have to deal with Syrian Kurdish forces who emerged as one of America’s closest allies in the fight against Daesh and wound up controlling about a third of the country in the northeast. But the Kurds seek autonomy from the regime, rather than its overthrow. Russia’s endgame also includes the reconstruction of Syria, for which it hopes to attract European Union funding. A bloodbath in Idlib could scuttle those aspirations.
6. Is there a way out?
Turkey demands a halt to the offensive and withdrawal of Syrian forces encircling Turkish outposts as well as from the M5 highway that runs to Aleppo. It has threatened to use greater force to repel them.
But both Turkey and Russia have reasons not to let the conflict escalate and lead to a breach in relations as happened after Turkey downed a Russian military jet in the area in 2015. The airstrike on Feb. 27, and the scale of any Turkish response, may put that relationship in jeopardy again.
A temporary resolution could lie in allowing regime forces to take control of strategic highways linking the government’s coastal stronghold and the capital with Aleppo in return for halting the offensive. Ultimately Turkey may have to cede some territory that it controls in Idlib to the Assad regime.
Turkey has already proposed establishing a safe zone near the border to protect refugees and keep them from spilling into its territory. That zone would also give it a pretext to maintain troops and thereby some influence in postwar Syria.