Escalating violence in Idlib tests Russian-Turkish deal in north-west Syria

President Bashar Al Assad's loyalists have been trying to recapture a strategic hill from militants

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters in Jabal Al Zawiya in Idlib. Reuters
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Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad exchanged sporadic artillery and mortar fire on Sunday with Islamic militants in the north-western governorate of Idlib. Dozens of people have been killed in the last two weeks there.

The latest round of fighting started after two brigades allied with the militant Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (Al Hayat), one of the most powerful militias in the civil war, captured a strategic hill called Milaja from loyalist forces at the end of last month.

"The fighting lessened considerably today but the regime is randomly targeting Jabal Zawya," Ali Birakdar, an aid worker in the area, told The National.

The rugged rebel area of Jabal Zawya, situated near Milaja, forms a main part of the front lines in Idlib. The lines separate anti-Assad units dominated by Al Hayat and loyalist forces comprised of regular troops and pro-Iranian Shiite militias

The separation lines in Idlib had largely held since a deal in March 2020 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, which avoided war between the two countries over the area. It forms a main part of the Turkish zone of influence in the country.

Mr Birakdar said that hundreds of civilians in Jabal Zawya have fled the bombings to areas closer to the Turkish border in the north.

Several regime attempts to regain Milaja and advance into Jabal Zawya, and other areas of Idlib over the last week, under Russian air cover, were repelled, he said.

The White Helmets, a rescue group operating in north-west Syria, said eight civilians have been killed in the area so far in September. Other sources say that a similar number of anti-Assad fighters have been also killed.

Russia is the most powerful backer of Mr Assad. Its 2015 military intervention, which has been reliant on air power, allowed the president and pro-Iranian forces to recapture large swathes of Syria from Sunni rebels.

The Turkish-Russian deal occurred after Turkish forces repelled a Russian-backed offensive by the Syrian military and Shiite militants to retake Idlib, the last refuge for several million Syrians who had escaped the regime's crackdown in the 2011 revolt against Mr Assad and the subsequent civil war.

The Syrian Defence Ministry said in a statement on the weekend that the military "with cooperation from the friendly Russian air force," has mounted over the last several days "quality operations in response to the blatant violation by the terrorist organisations on the Milaja axis in Idlib's countryside."

The armed conflict in Syria started in late 2011, after authorities used force to put down the peaceful protest movement against the president. The rebellion was eventually taken over by religious militants.

Among them was the Al Qaeda linked Al Nusra Front, a forerunner of Al Hayat. The group, which is led by Abu Mohammed A Jolani, a former Al Nusra commander, has channels with Turkey.

An opposition figure in the Syrian opposition based in Istanbul said that the capture of Milaja has exposed significant regime areas in a plan for a potential attack.

He said the attack was launched because Mr Assad's forces are seen as having lost some of the Russian support since the Ukraine war last year, as well as sharp retreats in the Syrian economy that have undermined loyalist morale.

"Al Golani is taking advantage of Assad's weakness," said the opposition figure, who did not want to be named.

The capture of Milaja also is related to domestic politics in the areas ruled by Al Golani in Idlib, he said, pointing out that Al Golani moved last month against one of his old comrades, the Iraqi militant Abu Maria Al Qahtani, whose power base in Idlib has been seen as a threat to Al Golani.

"Abu Maria is in jail now, but he remains popular," the opposition figure said. "A new round of hostilities with the regime helps deflect attention from his arrest."

Updated: September 10, 2023, 7:58 PM