Assad has threatened to obliterate Idlib with Russia's help. Can Turkey stop him?

Assad has threatened to obliterate Idlib with Russia's help. Can Turkey stop him?
Analysis: As battle fronts are redrawn in Syria's north, will Idlib, the country's last remaining rebel stronghold, be spared a major regime onslaught?
7 min read
06 November, 2019
Idlib has come under continual bombardment (Anadolu)
As Bashar al-Assad threatened an imminent offensive in Idlib in northern Syria unless rebels surrendered, Russia has renewed its airstrikes on civilian areas in the last remaining rebel-held province, killing scores this week. 

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights the new bombardment marks the "bloodiest air raids" carried out by Russian forces yet since September.

There are now fears that Idlib once again could be the target of a major Russian-backed regime onslaught, despite an agreement between Ankara and Moscow reached last month.

"The situation is insecure and the future of Idlib is unknown, and people are waiting for the interests of others and they are always victims," said aid worker Mohammed Muharram, who lives in the province.

Muharram thinks that it is highly likely there will be an offensive to take Idlib because there is "no protection for Idlib and no guarantor".

Turkey last month launched an offensive to secure control over areas taken by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who had previously captured the territory over IS. This led to a return of Turkish-backed rebel control over ethnically-mixed areas such as Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

But many have speculated over what this may mean for Idlib, as some feared a redeployment of rebels could mean that land was left with a power vacuum south of Idlib.

Although this did not come to pass, and ended with an agreement with the establishment of safe zones along the border, many still worry for the future of Idlib if Turkey ceases its support for rebels in the area.

"Turkey may leave Idlib for Assad, Iran and Russia to attack, which means the death of tens of thousands of people and the destruction of many cities and towns and perhaps a million displaced and many more towards Turkey, and the world," said Muharram.

He added that the only hope may be US animosity towards Iran and Russia, as well as further intervention from the international community, including by Turkey.

"Everyone can help stop the attack and help Idlib, but it takes the will, humanity and a feeling for children, women and suffering in Idlib," he said. 

"There are no services, no education…and very bad security.  Explosions, kidnapping and chaos.  There is a harsh life, with high fuel prices...and daily shelling in southern Idlib.  The camps will witness the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world this winter, schools are without support and without books, and children are in the worst [situation]. No one wants to help Idlib."

In the aftermath of the death of IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Muharram is impatient with the competing claims of responsibility for his death, with SDF forces and Turkey claiming interests.

"I do not think it will change anything because in Syria the problem is the criminal Assad, with Russia and Iran," he said.
Thousands of refugee families were affected by flooding in the region after heavy rainfall in April, and in the past years refugees have died from the cold, as well as in tents that have caught on fire due to the heating
Winter misery

Fared al-Hor, a media activist living in Maaret al-Numan agreed, saying that humanitarian conditions are likely to worsen in winter due to adverse weather conditions.

"More than 3.5 million people live here… and the situation is very bad," he said. Thousands of refugee families were affected by flooding in the region after heavy rainfall in April, and in the past years refugees have died from the cold, as well as in tents that have caught on fire due to the heating.

"I don't think now there will be an attack on Idlib, but later I do not know the countries that determine the fate of the region and not the Syrian army or Russia.  The interests of states determines the fate of the region," said al-Hor.

Marwan Kabalan, a researcher from the Doha institute, agrees that Idlib residents have reason to worry, at least in the long term.

"There is a very big question mark about the future of Idlib. The regime and Russia seem intent on regaining control of the area, at least the M4 and M5," said Kabalan, referring to strategic highways.

"There are speculations that a deal may have been struck during the Sochi summit between Putin and Erdogan wherein Turkey would facilitate the opening of the main roads in exchange for expelling the YPG from Tel Rifaat and Manbij. We still need to see if this is true."

Read more: Syrians flee Idlib for miserable displacement camps

Sam Charles Hamad, an analyst on international affairs, is also skeptical of accusations that Turkey may have 'sold out' Idlib in exchange for gains on Kurdish territory. 

"It doesn't make any sense. We heard all this during the operation against Afrin. Assad regime opposes Turkish invasion - if it meant some kind of exchange for Idlib, I assume they wouldn't be opposing it," he said.   

"Turkey will occupy the areas necessary for its interests and policy, while Assad will most likely reconquer the areas Turkey effectively [relinquishes] as per his agreement with the Kurds, not with Turkey.  The areas Turkey needs to resettle refugees in won't be ruled by Assad. I know many people believe this to be the case, but the entire point is a place where Syrian refugees in Turkey can resettle peacefully and permanently.  That means no Assad." 

"Turkey doesn't care if Assad rules Raqqa or most of Deir ez-Zor, but the immediate border areas have to be [Kurdistan Workers' Party] PKK and Assad free for Turkey's interests to be realised.  And it would be entirely antithetical for Turkey to then give some kind of green light for the reconquest in Idlib."

While many fear for Idlib, the regime's return in lieu of the SDF has troubled those who live in areas outside Turkey's interests.  As per the agreement, while Turkey managed to keep the areas they captured, and divide Kurdish forces, areas such as Manbij went to the regime. 

"If you read the 22 October Sochi agreement between Putin and Erdogan it says that Turkey accepts to reactive the 1998 Adana Agreement with Syria i.e. with the Syrian regime," said Kabalan.

The Adana Agreement was made between Turkey and Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez al-Assad, and aimed to stop regime support for the PKK, who Ankara considers a terrorist group.

Yet Manbij may pay the price for this, facing the return of regime rule after participating in the revolution, and then enduring subsequent repression by the Islamic State group as well as the regime.

There have already been reports of arrests and crackdowns by the regime and YPG after Manbij residents launched a strike against the entry of regime militias into the city.

Meanwhile hundreds of civilians demonstrated in Raqqa over the weekend against the deal between the SDF and the regime that will lead to the entry of regime forces into the city.

Like Manbij, after initial liberation of the area following the revolution, Raqqa was subsequently occupied by IS, and the SDF forces following IS defeat, and there was constant resistance in the area from residents against the subsequent administrations.   

It may seem that these areas will be forced to accept regime rule.  However, as has been seen in Daraa, the regime may struggle to reassert control over such areas, and the precise balance of power between regime militias and Kurdish forces remains to be seen.

Back in Idlib, Syria's last remaining rebel stronghold, residents are hoping being their interests will coincide with those of powerful states such as Turkey and the US, to spare them a similar fate to the rest of Syria.

For now, despite the misery of winter, inclement weather may also slow down their enemies and help them survive a regime offensive.

Kabalan is of this opinion. While he thinks that it is likely Russia will attempt an offensive sooner or later, it is unlikely to be imminent.

"The air force is not effective in winter, so an attack may have to wait until spring. Meanwhile, Turkey will be trying to use this time in order to solve the problem peacefully," he said.

"Turkey fears that two million refugees might cross the borders in case of attack."

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