Idlib: the never-ending last chapter in the Syrian war

Russia and Turkey are preparing for possible escalation in a proxy war of attrition in the northern province, but they are having trouble controlling their allies

A picture taken on March 7, 2020 shows destruction in the village of al-Nayrab, about 14 kilometres southeast of the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria.  / AFP / Omar HAJ KADOUR
Powered by automated translation

Byzantine settlements abandoned centuries ago dot Syrian opposition areas near the Turkish border in northwest Syria. Farmers tend to their cherry and olive orchards, residents say, during lulls in regime bombing.

Over the past nine years the province of Idlib and its peripheries, home to the Dead Cities of antiquity, have transformed from a backwater into a reservoir of Sunni rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.

Idlib is the lynchpin of Turkish goals in Syria and a battleground for a proxy war with Russia, the outcome of which could impact the ongoing rivalry between great powers in the Middle East.

The battle for Idlib

Those who tilled the land in Idlib before the outbreak of peaceful demonstrations against the Assad regime in March 2011 had little idea of the violence and displacement that was to follow.

By the end of the year, a brutal crackdown by government forces had killed thousands of civilians, prompting a violent Sunni backlash against the Alawite-dominated regime.

Why has Syria's civil war come down to Idlib?

Why has Syria's civil war come down to Idlib?

Idlib and other outlying Sunni regions became the backbone of the armed opposition. Most of those rebel groups that survived abandonment by their Arab backers amid the Russian-led onslaught in late 2015, eventually fell under the sway of Turkey.

Ankara is now backing the last rebel bastion against Russian-backed regime forces in the war-torn province.

Turkey, along with Russia, the United States, Iran, and —until a deal in southern Syria three years ago — Israel, has been supporting often-incompatible clients in the conflict.

Among them is the Syrian National Army, mostly comprised of members of myriad rebel groups that lost the fight against the regime.

Turkey's unruly allies

Members of Syria's Turkmen minority dominate the Syrian National Army, which operates mainly in areas captured from Kurdish militia. The Turkmen have long been oppressed under Hafez Al Assad and his son Bashar, except during a brief alliance between the current president and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the late 2000s.

But Ankara's strongest de facto ally in Syria is the Al Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al Sham.

Syrian fighters attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by the regime on Idlib province and the surrounding countryside, during a graduation of new Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) members at a camp in the countryside of the northern Idlib province on August 14, 2018. (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP)
Hayat Tahrir Al Sham members at a camp in Idlib  on August 14, 2018. AFP

The HTS evolved over the last decade from an outright Al Qaeda affiliate into a militant organisation with a nationalist veneer. The group controls the National Salvation Government, which markets itself as a civil independent administration in parts of Idlib.

Somewhere between the HTS and the Syrian National Army on the ideological spectrum are thousands of Syrian fighters shipped by Turkey to Libya. They deployed on the side of the government in Tripoli against its adversaries in Benghazi.

A senior opposition figure well-connected with the National Intelligence Organisation in Turkey told The National there are 12,000 Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Idlib and nearby western Aleppo and Hama.

Another 60,000 pro-Turkish rebels are distributed in Idlib and other Turkish spheres of influence in northern Syria. Turkey has been carving out territories here since 2016, with US and Russian acquiescence, to contain the expansion of Kurdish militia linked with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it considers to be a terrorist group.

Most of the non-Al Qaeda elements allied with Turkey, the opposition figure said, constitute "loose change", a reference to what he described as their lack of discipline and fighting capabilities.

Hayat Tahrir Al Sham members at a camp in Idlib on August 14, 2018. AFP

Alliances under strain

A Syrian man inspects the rubble of his destroyed house in the town of Ihsim in al-Zawiya Mountain region of Syria's northwestern Idlib province on March 8, 2020 following a Russian-Turkish ceasefire deal. The ceasefire agreement raised hopes of an end to one of the bloodiest phases in the nine-year conflict but residents in Idlib were sceptical this deal would last longer than previous ones. / AFP / AAREF WATAD
A resident of Jabal Al Zawiya region of Idlib at his destroyed house on March 8, 2020 following a Russian-Turkish ceasefire deal.  AFP 

These patron-client relationships have been bumpy, and sometimes violent, perhaps none more so than the alliance between Turkey and HTS.

The group has sought to foil ceasefire deals Ankara made with Moscow for Idlib in 2017 and 2018, which became known as the Astana and Sochi agreements respectively.

The deals could have resulted in the opening of major highways and new crossings within regime areas, causing HTS to lose access to lucrative revenue streams it controlled before the frontiers changed due to regime advances, erasing the crossing HTS had within its domain.

Since a March 2019 ceasefire, Turkish and Russian proxies have been fighting a war of attrition in Idlib. With no permanent solution in place, renewed escalation could trigger direct intervention by their patrons once more.

In February and March this year, Turkey and Russia came to close to face-to-face war in Idlib after Russia pushed for territorial gains that Ankara said went beyond the Astana and Sochi deals. But Moscow and Turkey have in large part calibrated their relationship in a way to keep their geopolitical disputes in Syria, and in Libya, largely separate from the pursuit of joint economic interests.

Military vehicles of a joint Russian-Turkish patrol pass through the M4 highway on the outskirts of the rebel-held town of Ariha in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on May 7, 2020.  / AFP / Omar HAJ KADOUR
A joint Russian-Turkish patrol passes through the M4 highway on the outskirts of the rebel town of Ariha in Idlib, May 7, 2020. AFP

Opening the highways in Idlib would benefit both sides because it could re-activate a major link for commercial cargo between Europe and the Middle East.

But that would alter local dynamics of the war economy, managed by allies of the two countries on either side of the highways, and potentially spark more conflict, as well as destabilising support bases for both parties.

Russia's dysfunctional allies

The picture is nearly as complicated among Russia's allies, which have proved difficult to control.

In the last few months, family feuds among the Alawite inner circle have played out publicly, disrupting the balance of power within the Damascus regime and embarrassing Russia. Moscow has emphasised that its support for Mr Assad emanates from his status as head of a sovereign state with functioning institutions.

The Russian-Iranian alliance has also been rocky.

Shiite militias supervised by Iran have been doing most of the heavy lifting on the battlefields, making inroads among the regime's military and security organisations linked with Russia and giving Tehran reach on the ground that Russia lacks.

Proxies of the two countries fought on the same side to try and take the last opposition areas in Idlib, while competing for spoils in a war they have not fully won.

Mooted rewards include telecommunications and oil concessions, as well as potential infrastructure projects. These sectors have long been monopolised by Rami Makhlouf, President Bashar Al Assad's billionaire cousin and a frontman for the Alawite inner circle.

Some observers say Russia has been behind moves in recent weeks to bring about the downfall of Mr Makhlouf, who has been financing militias linked with Tehran and Moscow.

But it is too early to pinpoint the reason for Mr Makhlouf's difficulties, regional financiers said.

They said his likely downfall could be related to latent repercussions of the death of Bashar Al Assad's mother Anissa four years ago.

As the matriarch, Anissa kept family disputes over wealth and power from boiling over since Bashar inherited power from Hafez Al Assad in 2000.

Speaking on an international panel last week, former Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Fedorov dismissed reports that Moscow also wants to replace Mr Al Assad.

Mr Fedorov told the Beirut Summit Institute that retaking Idlib was crucial in Russia's strategy to prop up Mr Al Assad. He indicated that the alternative would be an Iranian proxy.

"It is very painful for Russia to concede at this very stage that Iran is taking more and more control over Syria on the ground," Mr Fedorov said.

He said that with "the political process not working" a renewed Russian offensive on Idlib was "inevitable", which explains increased Russian military aid to the regime in the last two months.

"If this does not happen, if Assad is not assisted by us militarily, especially now, then an offensive military operation in Idlib will not happen. In this case, Russia will lose too many things in Syria."

Limits to Russian military superiority

A Syrian man works a machine that makes olive oil in the village of Atme in the northwestern province of Idlib, on November 30, 2012. The farming village a stone's throw from Syria's northern frontier has been swelled by civilians displaced by the conflict which has ravaged the country for more than 19 months. AFP PHOTO / HERVE BAR (Photo by HERVE BAR / AFP)
Olive oil making in Atma village in Idlib province, November 30, 2012. Atma's closeness to the border with Turkey has mostly spared it regime and Russian bombing. AFP

A military campaign supported by Russia in the northwest in 2019 achieved important gains. By the ceasefire in March this year, loyalist forces had bitten off large chunks from Turkey's sphere of influence in Idlib and areas to the west of Aleppo.

Massive Russian-backed air bombing, which killed hundreds of civilians, was behind the advances but the territorial gains were only achieved after Hezbollah and other Iranian supervised militias joined the offensive, Syrian opposition sources said.

The loyalist momentum ground to a halt in the face of these partially reinvigorated opponents. Turkey poured major hardware and thousands of troops into Idlib, renewed support for anti-Assad rebels and lifted a squeeze on Al Qaeda-linked militants.

After being stung by heavy casualties in its military, Turkey unleashed artillery and drones against Hezbollah and regime forces, inflicting heavy casualties back.

On March 5 of this year, Presidents Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin agreed in Moscow on a ceasefire that formalised the stalemate.

Turkey thwarted the regime's goals of taking the provincial capital of Idlib and reaching the border, opening the possibility of an even more disastrous refugee crisis. The Russian-backed forces kept the towns of Saraqeb and Maarat Al Numaan, significantly reducing opposition access to the highways.

Since then, the ceasefire has frequently come undone, with continued regime shelling and hit-and-run rebel attacks throughout March and April. But Russia and regime warplanes mostly kept away from the skies over Idlib.

The province, which is roughly half the size of neighbouring Lebanon, lies at the start of a 1,000 km international transport route across Syria and Jordan. Most of the land container exports from Turkey and Europe to the Levant and the Arabian Gulf flowed along the route before the 2011 uprisings spread.

Restoration of the land link, and resumption of cargo and transit fees, could be a win-win situation for Russia, the regime, Turkey and Jordan. Iran, however, would gain little.

Analysts have questioned if Iran's role in the northwest may be eroding, especially with the uptick of Israeli air strikes against Iranian-linked targets over recent weeks. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech on Wednesday night that Israel has been targeting missile-manufacturing sites but denied that they were pushing either the party or Iran out of Syria. Russia, again, showed no objection to the wave of Israeli air strikes.

The raids focused on Aleppo, the command centre for Iranian militias in Idlib, opposition military sources said.

The opposition operative who works closely with Turkish intelligence said Turkey is preparing for another round of armed conflict in Idlib by moving HTS fighters towards the Turkish border, which could shield them from Russian strikes.

Under Turkish dictate in 1998, the Syrian regime signed a deal that gave Turkey access to a five-kilometre deep strip along the border, which has been a de-facto safe zone since 2011. The threat of Turkish invasion at the time over Hafez Al Assad's backing for the PKK, resulted in the deal, known as the Adana Agreement.

"Turkey knows that its effort to streamline Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and keep them as a deterrent force will not be smooth," the opposition operative said. "But the Hayat has no alternative unless they want Russia to annihilate them."

Kurds gains tempered by losses

Prior to the Adana agreement, Syria was the launchpad of PKK attacks into Turkey. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was living under Hafez Al Assad's auspices in Syria before he was evicted, then captured and jailed in Turkey.

Hafez Al Assad supported the PKK, even though the Syrian regime disenfranchised its own Kurdish minorities – the Kurds constituted 10 per cent of Syria's 20-22 million population before 2011.

The revolt marked the end of the alliance between Mr Assad and Mr Erdogan, and a renewed cooperation between the regime and the PKK and its Syrian offshoots.

PKK-linked militia based in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin on the edge of Idlib supported a Russian-led offensive that captured in late 2016 the rebel districts of Aleppo, the famed merchant city on the confluence of the old silk road.

The joining of forces between the Afrin militia and Russia was the peak of Kurdish expansion in Syria. Kurdish militia in eastern Syria had grabbed large chunks of the region along the Euphrates River basin, during and before the US-backed fight against ISIS.

But in early 2018, Turkish forces and the Syrian National Army overran Afrin, after receiving no objection signals from Moscow and Washington.

A Turkey-backed Syrian fighter stands guard on November 19, 2018 in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin. - Clashes on Sunday between Turkish-backed rebel factions vying for influence in the northern Syrian town of Afrin left 25 fighters dead, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said  said. (Photo by Bakr ALKASEM / AFP)
An Aran Syrian Sunni fighter on November 19, 2018 in Afrin, the ethnically cleansed former Kurdish enclave. AFP

The fall of Afrin denied the PKK-linked Kurds a continuous stretch of land along the Turkish border in northern Syria. The entire 300,000 Kurdish inhabitants of Afrin fled to Aleppo and to a Russian controlled area in Tall Rifat north-west of the town.

The Turkish proxies justified the ethnic cleansing as retribution for the forced displacement of Arabs in Kurdish run areas in the Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria and the support the Kurdish militia had lent to the regime's destruction of Aleppo.

After that, the Kurdish militia split into two factions, one allied with the US in the east and a smaller faction in the Russian sphere of influence in Tall Rifat.

In a sign of the pressure that PKK-related groups are under, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) the political wing of the militias in the east, entered into talks this year with The Kurdish National Council on joint representation for Syria's Kurds.

The council is a political group supported by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.

US presence in the east

The fate of the Kurds ultimately depends on whether the US chooses to maintain a deterrent presence in eastern Syria. Since announcing plans for a complete withdrawal last year, President Donald Trump has said some troops will remain.

The US raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in his Idlib hideout in October last year was a reminder that Washington remains a major player in Syria, complicating Turkish and Russian quests for peace on their own terms.

Ayman Abdel Nour, a prominent Syrian political analyst, argued in a Foreign Policy article this month that the fraying ceasefire in Idlib presents an opportunity for Mr Trump to press for an overall political solution that has so far eluded Moscow and Ankara.

The US can quickly offer "both countries — and especially Russia — face-saving paths out of a fight they can no longer afford", Mr Abdel Nour said.

He told The National that if the United States does not intervene "the status quo will remain unstable" and Russia and Turkey will not yield the economic benefits they hope for in Syria.

"Even if a token political solution is imposed, the spheres of influence of the outside powers and their proxies will not go away," Mr Adel Nour said from exile in the United States.

This picture taken on May 4, 2020 during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan shows an aerial view of members of the displaced Syrian family of Tariq Abu Ziad, from the town of Ariha in the southern countryside of the Idlib province, breaking their fast together for the sunset "iftar" meal, in the midst of the rubble of their destroyed home upon their return to the town after fleeing during the previous military assault on the town by Syrian government forces and their allies.  / AFP / Aaref WATAD
Members of a displaced family break their fast together on May 4, 2020, in Idlib. AFP

Since 2011, Idlib's population has doubled to more than 3 million due to the influx of displaced Sunnis, most of whom fled their homes in other parts of the country to escape regime bombing and offensives.

With the Turkish border closed, many voted with their feet to stay in Idlib, despite encouragement from Russia to use "safe passages" to regime areas. They know that a political solution resulting in a mere facelift for the regime will not improve their lot.