An uncertain future for Idlib as Assad is welcomed back to the international stage

7 min read
05 June, 2023

Despite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad being welcomed back onto the international stage, all is not well at home.

His country is broken into three parts, which, at best, are in a state of uneasy coexistence and at worst are stuck in a low-intensity active conflict.

In the country’s northwestern Idlib province, Assad’s forces are engaged in near-daily shelling along the frontlines and Russia has recently resumed airstrikes after a long lull.

Idlib is ruled by a former al-Qaeda offshoot, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which analysts describe as undergoing a transformation aimed at cementing its rule in the province.

"Around 4.5 million people are crammed into the country's northwest in the last opposition-held pocket of Syria"

The group has Turkey’s tacit backing, which sees HTS as a source of stability in the province and as a moderating influence on the more radical, transnational jihadist groups in the area.

The Syrian regime has expressed its desire to reclaim the province, but ever since a March 2020 offensive ended in a disastrous defeat at the hands of Turkey, the territory has not changed hands.

If Assad truly wishes to control all of Syria, he will first have to deal with HTS and its strange bedfellow, Turkey.

Could HTS be evicted from northwest Syria?

Starting in 2016, Assad’s forces, backed by Russian airpower, began to turn the tide in Syria and reconquer swathes of the country held by the opposition.

In cities like Aleppo and Daraya, Assad used the same tactic: starve them out. His military forces would besiege the city, preventing food and other basic supplies from reaching the civilian population and fighters alike in a form of collective punishment described as a crime against humanity.

Once brought to the brink of starvation, residents of opposition-held areas were given a choice: surrender or leave. Many civilians and opposition fighters took the latter choice and were taken by green buses to other opposition areas until regime forces arrived and the cycle started anew.

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Today, there is nowhere left to displace the country’s opposition and civilians who fear for their safety should they once again have to live under the regime's rule.

Around 4.5 million people are crammed into the country’s northwest in the last opposition-held pocket of Syria, whose borders have been forged by a stalemate between regime forces on one side and HTS and Turkish soldiers on the other.

HTS, which rules the northwest, has tightened its grip on the area significantly since 2020 and has been bolstered by Turkish backing for its establishment of a statelet in Idlib.

Through a combination of military confrontation, raids and detainments, HTS has effectively neutralised all of its past rivals such as Hurras al-Din and Ahrar al-Sham.

A refugee camp in Syria's northwest Idlib province. [Getty]

“It’s a continual policy to go after groups that are politically problematic, security threats or are violating the rules and guidelines they set out,” Gregory Waters, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told The New Arab.

This process of power consolidation has created an Idlib that is starkly different from what it was five years ago when myriad jihadist groups competed for the reins of power.

Today, HTS has no rivals of significance. The group has built institutions and has restrained other groups from launching attacks against anyone but northwest Syria. This process of power consolidation has only been accelerated since the devastating 6 February earthquake which struck Syria and Turkey, experts say.

“The [6 February] earthquake has had a big impact on HTS’s drive to centralise certain functions, like the directorate of development and housing … the earthquake really galvanised them to have a functioning state system,” Waters said.

"The Syrian regime has expressed its desire to reclaim the province, but ever since a March 2020 offensive ended in a disastrous defeat at the hands of Turkey, the territory has not changed hands"

As a result of the group’s increasing “moderate” rule and defacto control of the area, it has increasingly become a partner to a begrudging international community, particularly to Turkey.

“From the Turkish perspective, the [HTS] presence in Idlib is a disturbing reality. HTS is intertwined with the 3 million [people] in Idlib. The Turks have tried to strengthen moderate voices and weaken dogmatics in HTS,” Ömer Özkizilcik , an Ankara-based Syria analyst, told TNA.

Turkey sees HTS rule as a stabilising force in the area, and fears that if the regime launches another offensive against the group, it would push millions of refugees towards its borders.

“As long as Turkey stands its ground, Idlib is relatively safe. From the Turkish perspective, another offensive on Idlib would mean 2 more million refugees, which Turkey cannot accept,” Özkizilcik said.

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A cornerstone of recently re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was securing the return of at least a million Syrian refugees to northern Syria.

Amidst a rising wave of xenophobia in Turkey against the over 3 million Syrian refugees living in the country, Erdogan’s promise for getting Syrians to go back to Syria is one of significant public interest.

The possibility of an Ankara-Damascus reconciliation seems increasingly remote, as a 10 May quadripartite meeting aimed at bringing the two closer together ended with the two sides at a stalemate.

Barring a reversal in policy towards rapprochement with Syria, it is likely that Turkey will depend on HTS as a partner in stabilising the areas meant for “safe” return of Syrian refugees.

This is particularly true given that the areas that the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) control in northern Syria are lawless and rife with human rights violations, as the militias that make up the SNA engage in looting and other abuses.

Assad poster - Getty
In the Idlib province, Assad's forces are engaged in near-daily shelling along the frontlines and Russia has recently resumed airstrikes. [Getty]

A settlement for northwest Syria?

A middle-of-the-ground solution, but one that would have to come with Turkish approval, would be a settlement approach to northwest Syria similar to the settlement agreements imposed on southern Syria in 2018.

Such an approach would see HTS fighters receive amnesties from the Syrian regime and be absorbed into Syrian regime militias. Civilian activists would “settle their status” by going to Syrian security centres and receiving documents that prove they are not wanted by the regime. The northwest would then theoretically have some forms of autonomy from regime rule.

While autonomy could on paper protect activists from the worst of abuses from regime security forces, in practice, settlement agreements in the country’s south have created lawlessness. Regime and non-regime actors alike have carried out assassinations and kidnappings with impunity in the south.

"Any decision to impose a settlement agreement on the northwest would first have to overcome the fierce opposition of civilians living there"

Caught in the crossfire are Syrian civilians, who have become currency for militias engaged in tit-for-tat conflicts or seeking to abstract ransoms from desperate family members.

The regime has also reneged on its promise to allow the south some autonomy, conducting a military campaign and re-imposing its rule in southern Syria in the summer of 2021. It is likely that opposition figures would view any regime attempts to impose similar settlement agreements in northwest Syria as disingenuous.

They might further fear for their own safety, as they have seen former opposition figures be picked off one by one by pro-regime militias in the south.

Turkey could also view such a settlement scenario with unease, seeing how jihadists and drug smugglers have proliferated in southern Syria since settlement agreements were imposed.

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The dissolution of HTS into multiple regime militias could provide opportunity for more radical elements of Idlib’s opposition to re-emerge in the absence of HTS’s security forces.

Already, Syrian civilians living in Idlib have expressed dissatisfaction with both Turkey and HTS’s approach to the regime. Protests in the northwestern province against both groups happen with some frequency, with accusations flying from demonstrators that both parties are “collaborating” with the regime.

Any decision to impose a settlement agreement on the northwest would first have to overcome the fierce opposition of civilians living there.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou