The warnings over a humanitarian crisis in Syria’s Idlib province, the last redoubt of the opposition fighting to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad, were dire.
More than three million civilians, many of them internally displaced as Mr Al Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies’ relentless advance through the country forced their surrender, were trapped. A planned offensive promised to send perhaps hundreds of thousands fleeing towards the Turkish border, a fresh refugee crisis that would have dwarfed many that came before.
So when Moscow and Ankara announced a deal that would postpone the campaign, sparing Russia the fallout of yet another humanitarian catastrophe instigated by its forces and its ruthless ally in Damascus, and Turkey a fresh refugee influx, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But such a respite for Idlib’s civilians will give way to trepidation, as the regional and international powers entangled in Syria wrestle with halting steps to advance a more permanent solution to a crisis that over seven and a half years has killed half a million people and upended the Middle East’s regional order. Despite the halt in fighting, the battlefield remains complex, and the status quo is unlikely to remain in place for long amid the shifting landscape, but western powers have few options and almost no leverage to force a political transition.
As if to underline the uncertainty, a video of Bahrain’s foreign minister Khaled Al Khalifa and his Syrian counterpart Walid Al Mouallem, provoked controversy due to the Gulf states’ public disavowal of the Assad regime and its alliance with arch-rival Iran. In an interview on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, Mr Al Khalifa defended the friendly meeting with Syria’s top diplomat, saying that Arab countries ought to play a role in resolving the crisis and acknowledging the authority of the central government.
Such a step, if supported by the other Gulf states, would be a major about-turn in policy towards the crisis, the first such diplomatic approach since the collapse of the Arab League-led peace process early in the conflict, and hints at possible behind-the-scenes moves as Mr Assad looks set for a military victory.
“It came at the same time as a serious Arab movement to reclaim the Arab role in the Syrian crisis,” Mr Al Khalifa said. “The Syrian government is the government of Syria, it is the rule in Syria. We work with states, even if we disagree with them, and we don’t work with those that bring down those states.”
Rebel officials have frequently complained over the last two years of the decline in Gulf military support, leaving Turkey as the sole military backer of the opposition. Between the summer of 2016 and January 2018, Ankara trained and armed what rebel commanders estimated in interviews to be three legions of around 20,000 fighters, the core of what became the Euphrates Shield force.
The rebel coalition, essentially a Turkish proxy, ousted ISIS from border towns and limited the expansion of Kurdish militias in northern Syria, and seized control earlier this year of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, opening up a land corridor into Idlib.
Rebel officials have long said they wanted an opportunity to oust former Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) from Idlib, but Turkey has yet to give the go-ahead for such an operation. Instead, it appears to have succeeded in forcing HTS to adhere to the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement establishing a demilitarised zone in the region to separate government and opposition forces – a deal that was inked after intense Turkish diplomatic maneuvering.
The Euphrates Shield force controls swathes of territory in northern Syria that has emerged as a “safe zone” for civilians, and Ankara is keen to develop the area and prevent further humanitarian calamities particularly as Turkish public opinion turns against Syrian refugees, who number over three million. Recent polls show Turks of all political stripes keen on the refugees’ return to their country, a stance that some analysts see as a key reason for the decline in support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) in recent elections in June and an unexpectedly strong showing by his nationalist allies.
Mr Al Assad has taken by force rebel territory all over the country, backed by Iranian-sponsored militias and the Russian air force – from Aleppo to Homs, eastern Ghouta and the birthplace of the revolution, Daraa. But the question of Idlib and the Turkish-controlled north remains unanswered, as does the ongoing shape of a post-conflict Syria and its relations with its patrons, Tehran and Moscow.
Meanwhile, western policy on Syria remains shambolic and commanding little leverage.
The European Union has conditioned reconstruction aid on meaningful political reforms, but remains wedded to halting a new refugee wave, leaving it with few options to force such concessions. The US has appointed a new envoy for the Syrian crisis, perhaps attempting to signal broader engagement, but its Kurdish allies have engaged in dialogue with Mr Al Assad’s regime, stung by Washington’s acquiescence to the Afrin campaign.
Turkish officials have often said privately that they had little to say on US policy in Syria under the Donald Trump administration because the US itself appeared confused about its own aims, pledging to stay to limit Iranian influence one day, and promising to pull out its troops on another. The US role remains another wild card in a possible settlement.
While the ceasefire may provide an opening for political talks, both the Geneva process under the auspices of the UN and the Russian-Turkish-Iranian Astana process have faltered. In the latter, most of the “de-escalation” zones designated by the guarantor nations have been reclaimed by Mr Al Assad, often after brutal assaults that involved the use of chemical weapons.
The UN envoy to Syria, Staffan di Mistura, and western diplomats have hailed the creation of a constitutional committee to draft Syria’s post-war charter earlier this year as a key regime concession, but little has been done in the intervening months to convene the committee, let alone debate the articles of such a document.
In the meantime, as regional and international powers wrangle for a settlement that preserves their core national security interests, Idlib’s civilians have continued to protest against the regime, the HTS, and the abandonment of the international community. As the clock ticks, they will watch as nations debate their fate, and look to see if the crisis will be conclusively averted.