Many observers believe that the battle over north-west Syria represents the endgame of the conflict in the embattled country. They argue that once the regime recaptures these last areas outside of its control, opposition to its rule will evaporate and Syria will revert to the authoritarian system that existed before 2011.
This paper will argue that rather than seeing the current fighting through this prism, it is advisable to consider it as yet another stage in a nine-year-long crisis. The fighting over Idlib encapsulates so much of the worst aspects of the Syrian conflicts, the underlying causes of which have not been resolved. Little of this will disappear if the Syrian regime regains control, and it may well initiate a whole new series of struggles.
The factors driving the ongoing fighting, and the impact they are likely to have on future instability, remain widely understood by many in the international community. Within this context, many western politicians continue to buy into the misleading binary choice of a dictatorial regime versus extremist Jihadist terrorists.
Rivalries between external actors
Not for the first time since 2011, major powers have faced off over Syria. What is happening in Idlib now is yet another recurrence of strife driven by a familiar mix of local, regional and international tensions exacerbated by extremist groups and a desperate humanitarian situation. As the conflicts have dragged on, the Syrian components of the crisis have diminished in importance in comparison to the influence of international actors. Given their central role in the crisis, the Russia-Turkey ceasefire agreed on March 6 probably represents no more than a pause in the hostilities.
One governing theme that has affected external policymaking toward Syria from the early days of the crisis in 2011 is the lack of understanding of the country and its people in Europe and the US. In 2009, the US State Department only had one desk officer dealing with Syria. At times this scarcity of knowledge has also been evident in actors from the Middle East, many of whom had little in-depth dealings with the country until relatively recently.
Turkey’s rapprochement with the Syrian regime was a relatively belated development based on escalating instability, and Ankara lacked a deep understanding not just of Syria but most of the Arabic-speaking world. Iraq had no diplomatic relations with Syria between 1979 and 2000. Israel has had no relationship with Syria at all, and while its intelligence assets may be strong, this cannot make up for a lack of access on the ground.
The present Syrian regime had never made it easy for outsiders to build a deep understanding of the country it has dominated since 1971. International civil society has largely been unable to operate in Syria. Journalists and academics were always closely monitored. One former BBC journalist told me that in the 1980s, Syria was the toughest place to report from in the entire Middle East.
If the outside world was never very familiar with Syria, it was even less so with Idlib. Prior to the conflict and even its latest gory phase, it is a racing certainty that few outside Syria had ever heard of or visited Idlib. Syria was, despite all its extraordinary historical treasures, only just appearing on the global tourist itinerary in 2010.
A lack of knowledge of Syria accounts for some of the West’s failure in policymaking on the country. Yet it also extends to a misreading of the motivations of the main external actors in the field. In particular, Russia’s determination to prevent any US-backed regime change in Damascus has been underestimated.
All of this contributed to the highly combustible situation by the start of 2020. At the end of February, the world watched as tensions ratcheted up in north-west Syria with serious fears of a conflict erupting between Russia and Turkey.
The killing of over 50 Turkish soldiers during the month - especially the attack on the 27 February that killed 33 personnel - forced President Erdogan of Turkey to adopt a hardline position and respond with force by launching Operation Spring Shield in Syria. This is Turkey’s fourth military operation inside Syria in four years.
Erdogan sent reinforcements into the province to protect the 20 Turkish military outposts there. Several Syrian regime aircraft were reportedly shot down, and, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), one Turkish drone strike killed 19 Syrian soldiers out of a total of 100 Syrian and pro-government personnel killed since 29 February.
Turkey wants to see a return to the ceasefire agreed with Russia at Sochi in September 2018. This agreement envisaged a buffer zone 15-20 kilometers deep in the de-escalation zone set up in 2017 between the various forces, jointly monitored by Turkey and Russia. Turkey has observation posts in Idlib for this purpose.
While Russia has not reacted with force, President Putin is seeking to restrain his Turkish counterpart. A ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey was reached in March, but how long this will hold remains to be seen given the substantive differences between the parties. The Syrian regime did achieve some territorial gains as a result and was not forced to withdraw back to its original lines before their offensive began.
Putin needs to balance his interests in supporting the Syrian regime against a major strategic ambition of luring Turkey away from NATO’s embrace. At the same time, the Kremlin will wish to show all sides that it is Russia that has the final say. He can also remind President Assad regularly about who is his ultimate security guarantor: that is, Russia, and not Iran. This is one reason why Russia has done so little to thwart Israeli strikes inside Syria.
Humanitarian consequences and the Assad regime’s objectives in Idlib
Around one million Syrians have so far been displaced in the current fighting in Idlib, many having to survive in sub-zero temperatures without shelter. About half of these are children according to the United Nations. Syrians have grown accustomed to seeing their cities reduced to rubble and images of pancaked buildings, bombed from the air, becoming normalized to an extent that the world no longer seems to react. Civilian infrastructure is no longer collateral damage, but the intended target, including hospitals, clinics, and schools.
Chemical weapons have also been used in Idlib, Including a deadly chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in 2017. Within the context of interlocking conflicts lasting nearly a decade, the last 10 months have just been the most intense and most destructive for Idlib.
Strategically, Idlib was for a long time not high on the priority list for the Syrian regime. The recapture of areas around Damascus, Aleppo and other major cities were more crucial to its mission. Ensuring access to Beirut was perhaps as important to the regime’s survival as any Syrian city, with the Lebanese capital acting as the lungs to the economy and a safe route out of the country.
Idlib’s location next to the Turkish border made it a key refuge for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Syrians, some of whom had been transferred following ceasefire agreements reached in other areas of the country. The Syrian regime was content to negotiate several ceasefire agreements which led to opponents being transferred to Idlib and other areas in the north under de facto Turkish control. For regime loyalists, this policy was just postponing the fight until another day in exchange for retaking strategic areas such as those around Damascus.
This latest Syrian regime assault on Idlib commenced in April last year. The Syrian province is the last remaining area not under the control of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. In attempting to retake it and get rid of the myriad Syrian opposition militias, including Jihadist groups, the regime’s forces alongside Russian planes have launched an unrelenting aerial bombardment. The aim is to force the civilians to flee as the regime views those living in these areas as being either part of the opposition or at least complicit with it.
Should such opponents be forced to flee the country then Damascus would see this as a worthwhile result. Also, abandoned real estate can be handed out to loyalist cadres that the regime needs to keep happy. The consistent, if flawed, a narrative of the regime is that Idlib is a terrorist haven and therefore everyone there is a legitimate target. Some groups are widely deemed to be extremist and violent, but this does not account even for the majority of the three million people estimated to be surviving in the province.
One of the factors that motivated the regime’s approach was the presence of the two major highways that run through Idlib – the M5 north-south artery that connects Damascus to Aleppo, and the M4 that links the coast at Latakia with Aleppo. The regime’s military efforts have sought to secure these two vital transport hubs, which meet at what remains of the town of Saraqib.
In February 2020, the regime appeared to have taken the last remaining stretch of the M5 only to lose part of it again a few days later. Until the majority of the opposition is defeated, it is unlikely these highways will be fully secure. The March ceasefire agreement was a success for the regime as it sets up a security corridor for six kilometers of the M4 to keep it open.
For the various Syrian armed groups, Idlib’s importance was vital from the earliest days of the armed phase of Syria’s war. Idlib was gradually prized from regime hands between 2012-2014. Control of border crossings with Turkey was a huge and valuable asset. The nationalist Farouk brigade, that had fought the regime’s forces in Homs, was the first to control the Bab Al-Hawa crossing from July 2012 but lost it to Islamist groups by December 2013. This allowed significant influence over other armed groups as it was a valuable conduit for arms, money, supplies, and fighters.
The interplay between the Idlib conflict and the policies of international actors
Turkey is determined not to lose Idlib nor be forced to admit more refugees through its borders to add to the 3.7 million it claims it currently hosts. The country may seek the establishment of another buffer zone where displaced Syrians could seek refuge. Exiting across the 100km of the Turkey-Idlib frontier appears therefore not to be an option for refugees, who may have to risk journeying to other Turkish-controlled areas such as Afrin and Al-Bab in the north.
Reports show that Turkey has also been deporting Syrians back to Syria against their will making them sign documents to say they are returning voluntarily. Half of the three million Syrians in Idlib had fled from violence in other areas of the country. This time there may be no exit, no haven to flee to, not even for the millions of them who are children. Panos Moumtzis, the UN’s humanitarian chief for Syria, was clear: “These people don’t know where to go.”
If the Syrian regime is weaponizing civilians by forcing them to flee toward Turkey, the latter is doing the same by threatening the EU with refugees. Turkey has announced that it was ripping up the 2016 agreement with the EU. Turkish officials made it clear that they would no longer prevent the flow of refugees out of Turkey into the EU. Greece responded by closing its land border as refugees moved fast to take advantage of what may be a short window.
The EU has reacted very slowly to the Idlib crisis. It was not until the end of February that an emergency meeting was called to discuss the issue. Given that all the signs were clear that a catastrophic humanitarian crisis was getting worse and that refugee pressures were on the increase, this would appear inexplicable.
The European reaction is also typical of how it has approached the Syrian crisis at least over the last five years. After the deployment of Russian forces and military hardware in Syria in 2015, EU powers have been increasingly left on the sidelines. The dynamics on the ground have become massively more significant that any diplomatic dynamics in Brussels, Geneva or New York.
Increasingly, what has counted has been the ability to deploy military force, which the EU has never been willing to do. This is why the Astana process involving Russia, Turkey, and Iran has been the primary arena where deals have been made and where the great game has been played out.
What is surprising, however, is that in Idlib, even more than in other areas in the south or even east of Syria, the EU has more of a vested interest. As the region is closer to EU borders, there is a greater risk of a major refugee influx into EU states with populations largely resistant to accepting any more refugees from Syria or anywhere else.
The Trump administration has also taken a fairly hands-off approach to events in Idlib. Unlike the EU, the US does have the capability to alter the balance of power on the ground. It just lacks the will. Trump does not wish to get involved, based on his often-stated desire to get all US forces out of the country. The only action he has authorized in Idlib was against the leadership of ISIS, the mission that led to the death of its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in October 2019.
One strange aspect of the US approach is the continued reluctance to take action against Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, given that it was Al-Qaeda’s branch in the country and a designated terrorist group. The argument that HTS is not planning any actions outside of Syria might be true for now, but can this be reliably assumed in the future?
According to the UN, “Idlib Province, in the north-west of the Syrian Arab Republic, remains dominated by groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda but also plays host to relocated ISIS fighters and dependents.” It estimates that roughly 12-15,000 HTS fighters are present in the region. The Russian position is that Turkey is obligated under the 2018 Sochi agreement to deal with HTS.
The likelihood of extremist Jihadist fighters, such as those in HTS, dispersing due to fighting in Idlib is high. In the resultant chaos that would appear likely, will outside powers be able to track all their movements?
The Idlib crisis will not end through an agreement or the defeat of one side by the other. Agreements are unlikely to hold as previous ceasefires show. If Syrian regime forces do prevail on the battlefield, this will not resolve the humanitarian or refugee crises. The refugee crisis is likely to become bigger and more challenging. It does not answer questions about how reconstruction and reconciliation can take place. Extremists will remain a threat to civilians as well as the regime.
The winner on the battlefield may enjoy a short-term triumph, but harsh reality will soon strike home as it has elsewhere in Syria. The country is bankrupt, with huge debts, and subservient to outside powers and interests. Sanctions remain in place and in the case of the US, are being made even tougher. The spread of the coronavirus across the Middle East could have far worse effects in a country like Syria where the medical infrastructure has been smashed and medical staff killed or forced out.
If a ceasefire does emerge from the Putin-Erdogan meetings, the danger will be that the rest of the world relaxes and releases whatever pressure there is on the warring parties. The ceasefire must not be seen as a time for the international diplomatic community to put its feet up, but rather to pursue a permanent political solution not just for Idlib but Syria and Syrians as a whole.
It must not succumb to the easy view that Assad has won and just give up. The Syrian regime may retain in the near future a form of control over the country, but it is still very much a loser from the conflict and the damage that has been done. Its fiefdom is in ruins and what remains of the Syrian economy is collapsing.
Unless a political solution is found, Syria will remain in crisis and unable to meet the needs of its people who will remain on the brink of famine and aid-dependent. Instability and extremism will continue to haunt the country, and its neighbors will not be immune to the effects.