Idlib could be the endgame of the Syrian conflict

As clashes around the region escalate and there are rumours of an impending offensive by loyalist forces, what will the future look like for Idlib? asks Ahmet Altindal

Syrians gather at a site of car bomb in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib on August 2, 2018.  
Idlib is the last of four "de-escalation" zones agreed by world powers in 2017 where the rebels still have a major presence. Strategically important Idlib province shares a border with rebel-backer Turkey and is adjacent to Latakia, a regime stronghold on the Mediterranean. / AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADOUR
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This year alone, the seven-year Syrian conflict has seen the fall of many rebel strongholds, including Eastern Ghouta, Rastan and the cradle of the revolution, Deraa.

To the north of the country, the Syrian Democratic Council is making overtures of peace towards Damascus, perhaps in the realisation that it cannot bank on continued support from the US. Even Damascus’s own narratives seem to be looking to the future. Reconstruction and reconciliation are the buzzwords of the day. The recent confirmation of the deaths of many detainees seem to suggest that the regime is looking to draw a line under this chapter.

There remains one last source of resistance: The greater Idlib region, consisting of much of Idlib province and parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo. The region has become the main destination for rebels who were evacuated from other parts of the country. For the estimated four million inhabitants of the region, many of whom are opposition supporters, Idlib is the last sanctuary and the last stronghold.

It is clear that the opposition will not be able to hold the territory. Clashes around the region are picking up and there are rumours of an impending offensive by loyalist forces. But what will the future look like for Idlib?

One scenario is full conquest by the Syrian army. It is no secret that Damascus has expressed desire to take control of Idlib, despite statements by Russia that this is "out of the question" and in the face of Turkish objections.

If a full-on battle takes place, this will not be easy for regime loyalists, who will face some of the most hardened rebel factions still standing. This includes the former Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) and the National Liberation Front (NLF), which recently absorbed many smaller rebel factions. Although the consolidation might allow for a more coherent resistance, the prospects do not look good for the opposition.

On paper, the Syrian regime is looking stronger than it has done in years, including troop numbers which have recovered in recent times. These numbers were bolstered by many former rebels from Deraa, who joined Assad loyalists as part of an amnesty agreement. With all other enemy pockets defeated or contained, Damascus will focus its full resources, including air support, on Idlib. The fact that Assad loyalists overcame the rebels during the January offensive in eastern Idlib and captured the strategic town of Abu Al Duhur with relative ease sets a troubling precedent.

Further, members of the Syrian Democratic Forces have recently expressed interest in partaking in Idlib operations. Likely, they hope to gather dividends for the recapture of the city of Afrin by aiding Assad loyalist forces. China has expressed similar desire, citing Uighur insurgents belonging to the Turkistan Islamic Party.

The fighting is likely to cause massive displacement of ordinary civilians, many of whom might head to Turkey, despite increased reluctance towards accepting refugees on account of rising ultra-nationalism and a worsening economy. For president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both rejecting and accepting Syrians will likely lead to backlash from different sides of his constituency. Post-conflict Idlib will likely resemble Ghouta and eastern Aleppo: slowly rebuilding but under the full and watchful eye of Syria’s feared intelligence agencies.

A second scenario is a forced siege of Idlib. Since the Russian-led Astana process came into effect last year, Turkish, Russian and Iranian militaries have been building observation posts in the Idlib region with the stated goal of documenting ceasefire violations (despite violations from all sides). Activists have reported that these posts, especially around the M5 highway (which bisects the province), are being reinforced with concrete slabs, which Turkey claims are there to bolster the defences of the posts. Many homes and landmarks between the posts were also demolished, effectively creating an empty strip of land.

Some observers believe that these developments are the first steps towards a siege of Idlib. The rationale for this is that Idlib is too much of an opposition hotbed to surrender easily or be governed without costly surveillance and patronage networks. Instead, Turkey and Russia would cordon the region off from the rest of the country, effectively containing the opposition in a small region. Incentives like continued trade, delivery of humanitarian supplies and access to the M5 would “sweeten the deal”.

Although the opposition would have free reign within, they would be dependent on trade from Turkey and regime-held areas, remaining subject to sporadic loyalist shelling. Anti-Assad movements inside Idlib are notoriously disunited. They include peaceful civilians legitimately calling for democracy and a better life but also multiple rebel groups with a history of infighting. Adding a further layer to this volatile mix, while ISIS has radically decreased in power, there are still terrorist cells remaining, with the continuation of violence, bombings and assassinations. This complex mix suggests that if Idlib is segregated, infrastructure and humanitarian conditions will continue to deteriorate.

Lastly, there is some speculation that Idlib might come to resemble a "Turkish republic of northern Syria". Much of the northern Aleppo region, such as cities like Al Bab and Afrin near the borders with Turkey, are already under de facto Turkish control. The subsequent reconstruction has been led by and modelled after Turkey. Turkish language is ubiquitous and the symbols of the Free Syrian Police resemble that of their Turkish counterparts. Turkish institutions like the University of Harran and the trade association Musiad have local branches or are opening them. Turkey is therefore facing accusations that they are attempting to "Turkify" the region into a "friendly enclave" .

Recently, Turkish media cited high-ranking rebel officials such as Fuat Aliko to suggest that the end-of-war agreement with Russia would entail Turkey taking control of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama. Such speculations are fanciful at best, especially since Damascus went to great lengths to re-establish control over Aleppo and Hama. However, it implies that Turkish control over rebel-held areas is being discussed. Under such a scenario, Turkey would foot the majority of the reconstruction bill as well as any political fallout incurred from annexing a piece of Syrian land. It is possible that Ankara could be given financial incentives by other Astana participants to keep the region stable. For those living in Idlib, Turkish rule might be more preferable to the first two scenarios: rule under Damascus or life in a shut-off, segregated Idlib. However, anti-Turkish sentiment is a reality.

There remains a number of unknowns in any one of these scenarios, such as how the international coalition would react and the level of intervention that may or may not take place. There is also the possibility of a combination of scenarios, including a Damascus offensive to secure key areas while leaving the rest of Idlib to its own devices.

Sadly, there is no stable solution yet in sight. Instead, there are a number of unknowns and possible scenarios still on the table. Regardless of the exact outcome, it is clear that it is in Idlib that the world will witness the endgame of the Syrian conflict. We can only hope that the true aims of the revolution and its hopes for civil society and democracy are able to carry on.

Ahmet Altindal is head of research at Integrity UK centre focusing on radicalisation, extremism, conflict and post-conflict reconciliation in the Mena region