Idlib Governorate is the last Syria’s territory of significance which is controlled by rebels. Taking it over may take months and cost thousands of victims.
The occupation of Eastern Ghouta and Dara (the city where Syrian Revolution started) meant with much probability that Bashar al-Assad did not only stabilize his position, but also won the seven-year war. Almost one-third of Syria is now controlled by the Kurds, and some territory near its northern border has been occupied by the Turkish army, yet still majority of the most important urban centers are once again under the jurisdiction of Syrian government.
President al-Assad’s forces, exhausted by the prolonged conflict, would most probably got defeated already in 2015 if it had not been for Russia’s intervention. Absolute air dominance and support from their land troops gave way to a more effective tactic of encirclement, followed by cutting off the rebel-occupied territory. When the besieged forces were massacred by air raids and artillery fire, capitulation negotiations were being held. Such was the case with Darayya, Yarmouk Camp, Daraa or Eastern Ghouta. Emaciated fighters (including those associated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State) with their entire families were transported to one place – Idlib Governorate.
At present, there are over 70,000 fighters, while a significant number of them are prone to be radical Islamists. Hence, it is no surprise that, after having stabilized the situations on other fronts, Damascus administration turned their eyes on this troublesome governorate. At the end of August, Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, declared that recapturing the Idlib Governorate is a priority for Syrian government. “We want to achieve that through agreements, but we are also ready to fight terrorists at all costs,” he emphasized.
Almost 25,000 soldiers were deployed to the northern front, including highly experienced Syrian Tiger Forces – Qawat Al-Nimr. At the same time, on the Mediterranean Sea, the Russian fleet had gathered to support the offensive. The battle hell that raised was ceased by international intervention. At the start of October, Turkey and Russia decided to form a buffer zone and gradually demilitarize rebels. Officially, it was about the well-being of civilians in the region. In practice, it is another step in the game for the influence zone on the Middle East. On top of that, it is only to earn more waiting time.
Idlib for decades has been inhabited by communities which were against Damascus government. As soon as the war started, these people would organize numerous units of the Free Syrian Army, which were exceptionally fanatical in fighting the government forces. The opposition, after initial success, decimated and deprived of centralized command, became influenced by the gulf states. At the break of 2011 and 2012, the group known as Jabhat al-Nusra, representing Al-Qaeda’s interests in Syria, appeared. Its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, from scratch and within over a year formed an organization with influences reaching as far as outside the governorate’s borders. Jabhat al-Nusra was joined by not only the supporters of radical Islam, but also fighters of the so-called “moderate opposition”. During seven years which passed from its foundation, the organization has undergone numerous metamorphoses. Ultimately, in January 2017, after merging Jabhat Ansar al-Din and Jaysh al-Sunna, it formed a terrorist supergroup called Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which makes them one of the greatest powers in the region. It is however not a leading one.
Today, in a rebellious governorate, the most important role is played by Turkish army. Military engagement of Ankara in Syrian civil war dates back to August 2016, when within Operation Euphrates Shield the border buffer zone was created. It was to push the fighter of the so-called Islamic State further into Syria (at the same time, Turkey was repeatedly accused of secret cooperation with Daesh). President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also achieved another strategic goal – he successfully bulged out between Afrin and eastern part of Rojava, two territories controlled by the Kurds. Two years later, in February 2018, Turkey decided to conduct intervention in the first one. After two months of heavy fights, all Afrin was occupied by Turkish army and its allied squads. At the same time, on the front between rebels and Assad’s forces Turkish bases were formed. They were to function as observation posts and lead to gradual de-escalation in the region. Officially, the reason for their formation was to monitor the peace resolutions of Astan, they however in fact simply enforced the position of Turkish forces. Despite Damascus’ objection, 12 such posts were built in three months. In response, Russia and Iran placed similar posts on the other side of the front.
“Turkey with its presence in Idlib saved from death tens of thousands people, and from suffering – saved millions. We are stabilizing the governorate and will continue our efforts,” said President Erdoğan on October 12. He also emphasized that on the territory of Turkey, there is currently over 4 million refugees, mostly from Syria. “We are operating without any significant support from international societies or organizations. Until today we have spent 33 billion dollars only to help Syrian refugees. We are not only saving our honor, but also the honor of entire human race,” Turkish president added. Important is also the fact that some refugees ran away from Idlib as a result of the Ahrar al-Sham’s activity, a fundamentalist organization currently functioning within the National Front for Liberation, and Turkmen fighter squads. These groups are supported by Ankara and fight arm in arm with Turkish army.
Turkey never said a word about strategic significance of this governorate. A number of communication routes cross the province, linking Damascus, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. For Assad, occupation of Idlib not only means ultimate victory over the opposition and jihadists, but also a significant improvement of communication route. Turkey, by maintaining his presence in the governorate, is able to hold Syrian government at bay. At the same time, it keep its ace in the hole which can be later played on international arena.
According to Staffan De Mistura, the United Nations’ representative for Syrian affairs, the Idlib offensive means tragedy for 3 million civilians, including about a million children. Majority of them are domestic refugees who were displaced or ran away from other regions of their country at war. Situation of most of these people is already dramatic. Escalation of conflict will not only kill another thousands of innocent people, but also lead to mass migration. No humanitarian organization will be able to provide help to these people. Due to the distribution of powers in the region, its main stream will flow towards the Turkish border, and onwards to Europe. “Nothing justifies heavy losses among civilians, even the war with terrorists,” emphasized Staffan De Mistura.
Under international pressure, the leaders of Russia and Turkey agreed to create a buffer zone, separating the government forces from rebels. By October 15, all fighters were to withdraw from borderline areas, and the combined patrols were to control them. Turkey was responsible for entering the plan into force, however it very soon became obvious that the Al-Qaeda-related groups would not conform to these rules. Even if Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham claimed they “appreciated the attempts of those who want to protect liberated territories”, they still “would continue their holy fight” and “warn against the Russian occupant’s guile.” In practice, the fighters never withdrew from the buffer zone, what’s more, they continue their preparations for defense. At the same time on the frontline civilians regularly die in incidents. Entering those regulations into force is hindered by a complicated internal situation in the Idlib Governorate where many fighter squads clash. During the last weeks, local groups conducted many successful attacks, such as an attack on one of the main HTS commanders, Mohammad Abu Fares al-Turkistani. In such a situation, the withdrawal from occupied territory would not only be perceived as a sign of weakness, but would definitely be used to increase local influence.
Syrian government, Russia and Turkey have found themselves in deadlock. The forces of Bashar al-Assad are very weak, and the Idlib operation can take months. At the same time, Russia struggles with its own increasing difficulties, and the support of Russian people for activity in Syria has diminished significantly. Worth noting is the fact that Moscow’s main goals have been reached. After Tartus and Hmeimim bases had been secured, the Russians turned their eyes on Libya and Central Africa. Present situation is also advantageous for Turkey, the strategic goal of which is to maintain permanent presence in Syria. Turkey must also take into account that in case of any open conflict, it will lose control over its protégés. In this chaos some of them will probably force the border and in the near future they will become a serious threat. Undoubtedly, it would affect the security of the remaining NATO states, but present in the region US troops limit their response to diplomatic activity.
Despite current stalemate, escalation of fights in Idlib seems quite hard to prevent. None of the parties will budge, not only because their image would suffer, but most of all because it could eliminate them from the game for influences in the region. Neither Moscow, nor Ankara can afford it.
autor zdjęć: Omar Haj Kadour / AFP / East News