As Turkey’s top diplomat made the case for a peaceful resolution to the situation in Idlib, he was standing next to the man whose government could initiate a campaign to lay waste to it.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press conference on Wednesday that the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad was under attack by extremists aligned with Al Qaeda in Idlib, the last province in Syria under the opposition’s control. This could be a potential pretext for a government-led attack.
His Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu demurred. "It would be catastrophic to bomb the whole of Idlib,” he said.
With momentum on its side and the relentless backing of its allies in Moscow and Tehran, the Assad regime has pressed its advantage and militarily reclaimed much of the war-ravaged country after seven years of conflict.
Now international attention has focused on Idlib, a province bordering Turkey that houses more than three million people and where a major government campaign could cause a humanitarian crisis that capable of dwarfing any that preceded it in the Syrian conflict.
Western leaders worry such an offensive could spark another wave of refugees, concerns that were evident in France and Germany’s decision to attend an upcoming summit on the crisis announced by the Russian foreign ministry on Monday.
“I remain deeply concerned for the safety and protection of the millions of civilians living in this area, many of them displaced multiple times, and am alarmed such incidents are part of a further escalation of the conflict in the area,” Panos Moumtzis, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said in a statement, referring to ongoing violence in Idlib. “A military operation in [Idlib] and surrounding areas similar to what was seen in other parts of Syria will not only endanger many of the more than three million civilians in this densely populated area, but will likely severely impact humanitarian partners’ ability to deliver life-saving assistance.”
The Syrian regime is eager to launch an offensive in Idlib to conquer it militarily, as it has done in recent months in the suburbs of Damascus and in the southern provinces of Quneitra and Daraa, the latter being the birthplace of the uprising against Assad’s totalitarian rule.
The regime dropped fliers urging rebels there to reconcile with the government, a warning that an offensive might be near at hand, and Russia’s statement seemed to hint that they would be open to such a campaign, despite repeated denials.
But behind the scenes, Ankara has sought to defuse a crisis that is complicated by a “marbled” and complex battlefield, ongoing humanitarian distress and a nearby proxy army trained and paid for by Turkey.
Idlib is already buckling under the sustained pressure of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who have sought shelter there from ongoing regime advances around the country. In surrender deals throughout Syria, rebels and opposition activists have chosen to be forcibly displaced to Idlib rather than give in and live under the Assad regime’s tutelage, making the journey from Homs, Aleppo, Deraa and the Damascus suburbs.
The Turkish military has established 12 observation points ringing Idlib, offering a buffer against regime attacks. But the battlefield within Idlib itself is complex, containing a mix of extremists and rebel fighters as well as members of Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), a coalition that includes fighters from Jabhat Al Nusra, formerly the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Those fighters had conquered Idlib in a concerted campaign in the spring of 2015.
The presence of the fighters, who have sought to exert greater control over society in Idlib despite civil resistance, will serve to justify the Assad regime’s bombardment, as it has in other parts of the country.
But Ankara has one more card up its sleeve.
It has built up a force estimated at over 20-30,000 fighters, many of them trained in Turkey and paid a regular stipend, who carried out a campaign earlier this year to conquer Afrin, a Kurdish-majority enclave that had been under the control of Kurdish militants that Turkey considers terrorists. They also rolled back ISIS in northern Syria, taking control of towns like Jarablus and Al Bab, rebuilding services and homes.
The quick capture of Afrin highlighted the military effectiveness of a force that was dubbed the National Army by the opposition, despite its overt Turkish support.
In interviews earlier this year, several rebel commanders said they backed the Afrin campaign partly because it offered a ground corridor into Idlib. That would allow them to storm the province and oust Al Qaeda-linked militants, if their Turkish backers gave the order.
Last week, the rebel army’s senior command said they would be willing to unite with other opposition factions in Idlib to defend the province from regime attack, a plan that would greatly complicate an Idlib offensive and could, in the medium-term, leave a key chunk of the country out of government hands.
That rebel army, one senior political official in it said, could even play a role as a peacekeeping force in the region if a political deal is ever negotiated to settle the crisis in Syria.
But for now, with all eyes on Idlib, and many competing interests and regional powers involved, few know how the last major military campaign in the Syrian conflict is likely to unfold. But most agree Syrian civilians will pay the highest price.