The Syrian province of Idlib has been a perilous, frequently bombed sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of Syrians forced to flee homes elsewhere in their war-shattered country. But within days the largest remaining rebel enclave could be reduced to a killing zone — effectively underscoring the end of the seven-year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Abutting the Turkish border and northwest of Aleppo, Sunni rebel groups have controlled Idlib for years — an al-Qaida-linked militia is the most dominant — and they have expected a major offensive from Assad’s forces for months, one which will trigger, fears the U.N., a humanitarian crisis.
Upcoming Tehran meeting
The only thing likely to stop a full-scale assault this month, say analysts, is if a deal is struck between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran, due to meet in Tehran on Friday.
U.S. President Donald Trump Monday warned Assad and his allies Iran and Russia not to “recklessly attack” the rebel-held redoubt, saying in a tweet that hundreds of thousands could be killed. But the threat from Washington will likely not determine the fate of Idlib — that rests with Moscow, Tehran and Ankara primarily, say analysts.
The U.S. Department of State has threatened that Washington will respond to any chemical attacks by the Syrian government or its allies. But it has stopped considerably short of suggesting any American intervention or any punishment beyond that for an assault which will likely be the last major set-piece battle featuring anti-Assad rebels.
It has been a long-telegraphed nemesis.
Russia, Iran game plan
Free Syrian Army-aligned rebel commanders have predicted since December 2016 when Assad's Russian-backed forces captured insurgent districts of Aleppo city that Idlib was being readied to become a kill box, an area in which foes are funneled and targeted for final defeat. Western military tacticians agreed that was the game plan of Russian and Iranian commanders, who have been overseeing Assad’s war machine.
Syria's notoriously fractious rebel factions faced a stark choice in the wake of their demoralizing defeat in Aleppo: unify and possibly survive or squabble and risk Assad's finishing off the revolution.
But whether Assad launches a province-wide offensive, when an Idlib de-escalation agreement brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey expires September 19th, remains unclear. The decision will depend heavily on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, say analysts, rather than the U.S. president.
Turkey's pivotal role
Putin’s Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been urging the Russian leader not to green-light an assault by Assad, whose regime only survived thanks to the air power Russia could bring to bear on the rebels, who for years pleaded with the West to supply them with surface-to-air missiles, to no avail.
Erdogan has declared Idlib, where an estimated 70,000 armed rebels are holed up, half of them al-Qaida-tied, off-limits to Assad. His advisers say Ankara has warned Damascus off the province, which borders a swathe of Syrian territory to the east occupied by Turkish forces, which they have used as a bulwark mainly against the Kurds but also to block the Islamic State militant group.
“Idlib is a red line for us,” a senior Erdogan adviser told VOA.
Turkish forces have set up a dozen military observation posts across Idlib province as part of the de-escalation agreement with Tehran and Moscow reached under the Astana peace negotiations. An assault on Idlib would prompt another massive refugee crisis for Turkey and challenge Ankara’s influence in the Syrian territory it occupies and shows no sign of withdrawing from in the near future.
Turkey deployed more military vehicles to its southeastern province of Kilis this week, which have been transferred to the Syrian side of the border, a Turkish official told VOA. But it is unlikely Turkey will confront Syrian government forces.
The reinforcements and hardware, including M-60 tanks, said the official, are being readied more with an eye to contain a refugee wave from fighting in Idlib, although they would be used, if Assad oversteps the mark and starts tangling with Turkish forces manning Turkey’s military observation posts in the province.
Some Western diplomats have told VOA they expect Assad will get the approval from Moscow for an assault but not for one to encompass the whole of the province.
“Russia values highly its warming relations with Erdogan, which are important for the Kremlin in the bigger geo-strategic game as it vies with Washington and seeks to disrupt NATO,” says a British diplomat. “A full-scale assault would offend Erdogan. So Putin is in the challenging position of having to balance the demands of Ankara and Damascus,” he adds.
Noticeably, in the past few days Erdogan and his officials have reduced their threats over Idlib. At the same time Russian officials, who only weeks ago were hinting at their opposition to an escalation of hostilities in Idlib, have hardened their public rhetoric, saying Syria's government had every right to attack the rebel-held province.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said “terrorists” must be wiped out in Idlib, accusing them of using civilians as human shields. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says recent Russian ‘naval drills’ off Syria and an increase in the number of warships there is justified, adding that the “hotbed of terrorists” in Idlib must be confronted.
That all suggests an assault is indeed coming but with a question remaining about whether it will be province-wide or will stop short, leaving a sliver of territory still in rebel hands for the sake of Turkish-Russian relations, say diplomats and analysts.
Even so — truncated or not — observers say the cost in civilian lives and suffering will be high. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a report that any assault on Idlib will have catastrophic consequences. ICG says Russia, whose air support will be crucial for Assad, should understand that a bloodbath in Idlib would jeopardize its own political goal of seeking not only a win for Assad but his regime’s “full political restoration through international re-legitimation at war’s end.”
U.N. officials have warned of an impending humanitarian crisis, fearing for the well-being of 2.5 million to 3.3 million people estimated to be living in the province, half of them displaced by fighting in other parts of the country. Assad’s forces have stepped up their bombing campaign on the province, according to Syrian civil society activists, in preparation for a larger offensive.
Ahead of it, a propaganda war-of-words has erupted on social media sites. Russian outlets and pro-Assad groups have focused on the presence of al-Qaida linked fighters in Idlib. Russia Today, the state-owned and Kremlin-directed broadcaster, tweeted Tuesday: “U.S. wants terrorists to stay in Idlib; just imagine what Pompeo would say if they were in Oregon.”
And George Galloway, a former British lawmaker, who appears regularly as an anti-West commentator on Russia Today and Iran’s PressTV, tweeted: “Should ISIS Al Qaeda and the rest of the alphabet-soup of Islamist extremism be left in control of Idlib then?”
But Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, has warned: “As Syrian-Russian forces threaten the last anti-government enclave of Idlib, don't let them pretend that only jihadists live there. There are also well over two million civilians and a vigorous effort to preserve some remnant of democracy for Syria.”