Idlib: A Syrian tragedy foretold

Idlib: A Syrian tragedy foretold
Comment: Syrian and Russian forces are rounding on Idlib, and it's clear they will settle for nothing less than complete destruction, writes James Snell.
5 min read
07 Feb, 2020
Over half a million people have fled the regime's advance in recent weeks [Getty]
Wednesday brought news of collapse and destruction in Syria. Each day reliably brings more.

Reporting earlier in the week showed forces loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad entering Saraqeb, a significant town in Idlib province, which stood for years between the advancing regime and other cities it has targeted in Idlib.

Saraqeb has suffered the results of extensive bombing for years. It has been the target of several alleged chemical attacks designed to terrify the civilian population that remained into surrender. The regime's rapid advance was preceded by an exodus, as thousands of remaining residents fled the town, certain that no one could save them from the advancing forces.

UN estimates hold that over half a million people have fled the regime's advance in recent weeks.

Footage emerging from regime forces advancing into Saraqeb showed a town not only deserted, but in rubble - its inhabitants long gone, its obliteration ensured by aerial attack.

The regime claimed control of this land laid to waste, while other forces scrambled to think and to act.

Turkish forces had established forward posts in Idlib, which is under the protection of Turkey and its proxy rebel force, the Syrian National Army (SNA). The regime's advance passed a number of these outposts in its new offensive.

All this appears to have taken Turkey by surprise, with chaos in Idlib occasioning and involving chaos outside Syria.

That the regime would attack Idlib in this manner was overwhelmingly likely

A few days ago, Turkish forces moved armoured vehicles and artillery across the border into Syria. This was perceived both as a show of force and a very late bid to delay new attacks after the regime breached ceasefires and took Murat al-Naman and a number of villages.

As fire was exchanged between Turkish and advancing regime forces near Saraqeb, according to local activists, other sources reported that Turkey was in fact moving its forces from Saraqeb to Ariha, which is south of Idlib city.

The result, with or without these manoeuvres, is the surrounding of Saraqeb, the mass movement of people from the area deeper into Idlib, and the coming under siege of those Turkish forces still in the town.

If Turkey's intention was to hold off a regime advance, this has failed. If it wished to strengthen and reposition its forces, better to protect what it wanted to hold, and render its forces safer from regime attack and skirmish, this too has fallen short.

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That the regime would attack Idlib in this manner was overwhelmingly likely. All attempts to delay this advance, in the form of ceasefires and establishing demilitarised zones, were quixotic by definition. 

The signs were hard to miss.

Turkey, despite its public position as the protector of Idlib from Assad, sought to buy into the regime's peaceable intent. It made deals with the regime's allies and backers: Russia and Iran. It launched joint patrols with Russian forces, whose air force compatriots were at the same time - as they have been for months - bombing Idlib's hospitals and civilian targets.

Turkey gambled on ceasefire and calm, and when these things were undermined and thrown aside, it had to adjust - all in a weaker position.

This month brought the awaited about face. Turkey broke off patrols alongside Russian forces and asked, absurdly, for the Russian state - which is assisting Assad's advance - to restrain the conduct of his forces. To ask that a state openly committing massacres prevent its ally from doing the same - that was the Turkish position.

Moving tanks across the border and breaking things off with Russia could mean one of two things for Turkey: A genuine rejection of the tactics which have brought Idlib close to collapse and the war close to a bloody conclusion.

But it could also signal a new understanding from Turkey that, without direct attention, the final battle may be at hand. Turkey appears to be acting on the basis that Idlib is being overrun and Turkish forces (and their proxies) are fatally vulnerable.

The Assad regime's desire to use violence to maintain its state and to extend its dominion is unchanged

What we are seeing could be nothing more than a desperate Turkish effort to stabilise things before the whole province collapses and the weight of people travelling north becomes impossible to manage.

When taken with this week's bombing of al-Bab in Aleppo, which would, before this week, be an aberration, all this likely demonstrates that the regime's offensive last week in Idlib is not going to stop at taking Marat al-Naman and Saraqeb - but will instead follow recent regime troop build-up in Aleppo with offensives there.

Turkish pro-government media is reporting "SNA countermeasures" against this advance; this could portend the sight of a new confrontation and hold up. 

But unless the regime's advances in Idlib scare Turkey into more assertive and deliberate attempts to hold the regime off, the collapse of southern Idlib this week could be repeated in other provinces formerly outside the orbit of the regime.

Read more: Syria Weekly: Assad regime celebrates capture of Maarat Al-Numan, an Idlib ghost town

Some suggest a deal may be the end result of all of this - a long-sought political solution given new life. This seems difficult to see and to believe. The regime was resistant to peace and diplomacy when it was close to defeat. Its desire to use violence to maintain its state and to extend its dominion is unchanged.

How likely is it, as it makes gains against an implacable enemy, and would-be defenders of Idlib's civilians do nothing, that the regime would consider settling for anything less than the destruction of its enemies?

Amid the movement of a million people north, and the truly unfettered way the regime is now conducting itself, even if Turkey successfully entrenches a new defensive line, and briefly restores an equilibrium in Idlib, it seems to be destined to delay rather than avert catastrophe. Little else seems possible, as this inglorious war is brutally brought closer to its end.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The TelegraphProspectNational ReviewNOW NewsMiddle East Eye and History Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.