Idlib on a knife-edge awaiting its destiny

Updated in seventeenth paragraph by replacing [in former SDF territory] with [in former rebel territory].

In the last Syrian rebel-held province of Idlib, Turkey is more influential than the Syrian government. But Turkey’s position has never been entirely secure. Run by Syrian rebels and Islamists, Idlib is the last part of Syrian territory not run by a foreign state or President Bashar Assad. Idlib’s people are not happy with their present rulers and protest against them, but they fear the government and its allies.

The White Helmets civil defence units said more civilians had been killed in Idlib and in government and Russian attacks this week. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks of the need to protect Idlib’s civilians. This is why, he said, he established Turkish observation posts in the northwestern province and supported its opposition and some Islamist groups. Turkey built up the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) to oppose the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly affiliated with al-Qaeda.

This failed, and the SLF was defeated by HTS. Later, it was incorporated into Turkey’s coalition of former rebel forces, the Syrian National Army (SNA). 

With HTS so powerful, Turkey is not supreme in Idlib. Turkey has tried to rally international support to prevent Idlib being overtaken by the Syrian government, but advances by Assad’s forces suggest it will continue to push forward.

Turkey might be expected to defend Idlib for humanitarian reasons and self-interest. Idlib holds millions of displaced civilians who fear the regime and risk death it if approaches. Refugees would seek to flee to Turkey to escape Assad. Idlib has also served as a staging post for Turkey’s own refugees – or ‘guests’, as Turkey calls them – many of whom have been forcibly deported to Idlib as the refugee burden has proven unpopular in Turkey.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, co-director of Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to Idlib humanitarian operations, said: “Idlib is on a knife edge at the moment and the full scale assault by Russia and Syrian regime forces appears to being just held in track by the presence of Turkish military on the periphery of the province.  There are 3 million civilians trapped amongst about 5,000 jihadists.  

“The only humanitarian aid, which is just enough to prevent starvation, comes via Turkey,” de Bretton-Gordon said. “Many of the civilians are living in tents or temporary structures. The winter snows are only weeks away, and many, especially the young, are likely to perish.”

But Turkey’s commitment to Idlib is not absolute. The Turkish government favours creating a safe zone through its operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the country’s northeast.

Turkey signed a deal with Assad and Russia to protect this new zone, but that places Idlib's fate in question. Even more so in the light of Assad's continued, stated desire to retake Idlib.

More concerning for Idlib’s residents is Turkey's separate suggestion that its new territory in the northeast will take the refugees, which it previously attempted to relocate in Idlib.

Idlib’s residents and the Syrian diaspora are fearful that Turkey will sign a new and separate deal to give Idlib over to Assad.

“There is a distrust in general,” said Ruwan al-Rejoleh, the founder of a geopolitical consultancy based in Washington. “Yes, there will be a deal, and it will include HTS.”

Many Syrians fear that Turkey might, sooner rather than later, give up Idlib in a deal with the Syrian government and Russia.

Turkey's position was strong, but is difficult to maintain given the defeat of its favoured insurgent coalition, the SLF, by HTS, and its edgy relationship with the HTS-supported salvation government. 

The risks of any deal are great. When Turkey’s operation against the SDF began, the SDF signed a deal with the Syrian government that allowed Assad’s forces into its territory. Many Syrian oppositionists, civil society activists and former rebels found themselves facing the prospect of imprisonment, torture and death at the hands of the regime as formerly safe territory came under Assad’s compass.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said: “Based on the regime's track record in all areas outside of its control, regime opponents and those perceived to oppose Assad, such as activists, medical workers, humanitarian NGO workers and former rebels, are routinely targeted for arrests. Some of those arrested [in former rebel territory] have already been tortured to death.”

Therefore, she said, “the fears of activists and regime opponents of the regime's return to SDF-held areas are well justified”.

Some former rebels and civil society volunteers, certain the government would seek them out, fled towards the Turkish front line in a bid to escape the advance of Assad’s forces.

“Thus far,” Tsurkov said, “most activists remain in place, waiting to see whether their area will remain under the protection of the United States and what will be the exact internal security arrangement in place. Civilians do not oppose the return to state institutions, except its repressive organs, namely, the secret police. Two Kurdish activists with whom I am in touch already fled to the KRI [Kurdistan Region of Iraq], because their border towns will likely be taken over by the Assad regime.”

Residents of Idlib fear a similar fate if Turkey continues to sign deals with Assad, Russia and Iran. Any accommodation between Turkey and the Syrian government puts those in Idlib at risk.

“If Turkey decides to concentrate on northeast Syria and allow free rein to Assad in Idlib, we are likely to see a genocide of biblical proportions in Idlib over this winter. Assad knows he can use any weapons - chemical, incendiary, etc. - with impunity and his medieval scorched earth policy will see thousands freeze to death over the next few months,” de Bretton-Gordon said.

“Turkey has done a great service to the 5 million refugees in Turkey, and has single-handedly kept aid flowing into Idlib, where the UN and West has been unable or unwilling to do so,” he said.

But all this could change if Turkey makes an accommodation with the Syrian government.

“If Turkey leaves Idlib, the future is very simple; either the UN steps in to perform this muscular humanitarian support or thousands starve and burn to death as Assad’s storm troopers raze Idlib to the ground,” de Bretton-Gordon said. “At the moment the latter, sadly, seems most likely.”

© Ahval English