Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1408, (6 - 12 September 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1408, (6 - 12 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The battle for Idlib

The battle for the opposition stronghold of Idlib in northwest Syria will not end the conflict in the country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus


The battle for Idlib
The battle for Idlib

As soon as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Jawad Zarif arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus on 3 September, he stressed the need to “cleanse” the Idlib province in northwest Syria from the “remaining terrorists” and return it to what he called “the control of the Syrian people.”

“We must regain all the Syrian territory, and all sects and groups must begin its reconstruction collaboratively. All those who have been displaced must return to their families,” Zarif said.

His visit to Damascus came hours after a trip by US special envoy James Jeffrey to Israel, and it was closely linked to the three-way summit scheduled to be held in Tehran on 7 September between the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey.

It is part of the build-up by the regime headed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and militias supported by Iran to launch an attack on the Idlib province, the last stronghold of the armed opposition.

Iran and Russia both support this attack, even though Idlib is home to three million people and is the last holdout of opposition military factions primarily supported by Turkey. The goal is to end the revolution in the province and take back control on the ground, while also imposing a Russian-backed solution that suits the Al-Assad regime and Iran.

However, the battle for Idlib is likely to be the most difficult fought by the Al-Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran during the conflict in the country. Tens of thousands of opposition fighters have gathered in the province from across Syria, and Turkey fears that any regaining of the control by the Al-Assad regime will impact its national security.

The presence of the armed factions in the region is Turkey’s first line of defence against Kurdish groups that want to form a Kurdish province in Syria that could threaten its security.

At the same time, the US has expressed concerns about the presence of extremist factions in Idlib affiliated with the Islamist Al-Nusra Front, which Washington has listed as a terrorist group. The implication is that the US has given a green light to the regime and Russia to attack the province.

Russia has also been keen to promote the idea that the opposition factions in Idlib could use chemical weapons.

The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham group (Liberation of the Levant), categorised as a terrorist group by the US, is active in Idlib, where the difficult terrain will reduce the impact of any Russian air strikes. However, the opposition believes that the Al-Assad regime itself intends to use chemical weapons, explaining the Russian attempts to blacken the opposition factions before this happens.

In the past, the West has avoided confronting Al-Assad and his Russian allies when allegations of chemical-weapons usage have been made, even though in some cases the weapons have been deployed specifically to cause Western embarrassment.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov of defending an extensive military attack by the Syrian regime on Idlib with Russian support. Washington has also said there will be consequences if the Al-Assad regime uses chemical weapons, even as Lavrov and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem have been blaming their use on the opposition.

Meanwhile, the province has expanded greatly in terms of population after opposition fighters fled to it from other Syrian cities. Russia has been arranging truces in other areas of Syria between the opposition and the regime, relocating opposition fighters who refuse any reconciliation to the Idlib province.

The so-called de-escalation agreement signed on 17 September last year by Russia, Iran and Turkey says that the conflict in Syria will continue against listed terrorist groups. However, Russian and Iranian backed forces have been continuing their campaigns regardless of whether their opponents are listed as terrorists.

Turkey’s involvement in the Idlib province has included coordinating with Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, but it has failed to force the group to dissolve itself to avoid the upcoming battle. As a result, Turkey has also declared Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham to be a terrorist organisation, making it easier to make it a target for the war on terrorism as Russia and the regime are demanding.

Turkey finds itself in a delicate position, as it does not want to threaten its relationship with Moscow, especially as Russia is supporting it in its hostility to any measure of Kurdish self-rule. However, Turkey also does not want to undermine the alliances it has created on the ground with remnants of the opposition Free Syrian Army, Euphrates Shield and other groups in and around Idlib.

Irrespective of the outcome of the battle for Idlib, which from a military perspective will almost certainly be won by Russia and the regime, this will not represent a solution to the conflict in Syria and will not translate into political leverage as Moscow desires.

 The proposals for a solution to the Syrian conflict put forward by Moscow are unacceptable to the international community, which insists that any such solution should be based on the 2012 Geneva I Declaration that requires the formation of a transitional ruling body with a full mandate.

The battle for Idlib will also not help encourage the Syrian refugees to return to their country, and it will not convince the West to help in Syria’s reconstruction, at least not along the lines proposed by Moscow.

The Al-Assad regime, together with its allies Russia and Iran, is incapable of meeting the requirements for a true political solution to the conflict, meaning that the battle for Idlib cannot end the war.

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