As Syria’s seven year war ostensibly draws to a close, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over the future of Idlib in northern Syria, the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold. With nowhere else to run to, its three million inhabitants (including around 60,000 opposition fighters) are edging ever closer back into the clutches of the Syrian Government and its President, Bashar al-Assad. Although more than half of Syria’s population have already lost their homes, it is this final struggle that may prove the most costly for President Assad and his allies in humanitarian terms.
Presently, Idlib is controlled by rebel factions who, despite their common opposition to the Syrian Government, are divided amongst themselves. A large swathe of Idlib – around 60% – is controlled by the radical Islamist group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that has hsitoric ties to al-Qaeda. The National Liberation Front (NLF) – an opposition group supported by Turkey – controls another substantial area.
Throughout Syria’s war Turkey has provided support for opposition groups like the NLF, while Russia and Iran have backed Bashar al-Assad. Of course it was Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015 that marked a decisive shift in favour of Assad’s forces and it now seems as though Bashar al-Assad will soon regain control over much of the rest of Syria after years of uncertainty. The Syrian Government has no qualms about a large-scale offensive on Idlib; on 8th October Assad pledged to ‘liberate’ all areas under ‘terrorist control’. Syria’s deputy foreign minister has also declared that Idlib will be captured one way or another, either peacefully or militarily. And Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, told the NCF directly that if Turkey failed to withdraw, Syria would go to war to regain its territory.
Despite this belligerence, foreign powers involved in the war have shown a new commitment to avert further humanitarian catastrophe. A deal reached between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia on September 17th in Sochi, resolved that a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone would be created around Idlib after the removal of heavy weapons and radical fighters from the area. A ceasefire agreement was also established between the opposing parties. It was created in an attempt to prevent (or postpone) a Russian led attack on Idlib and allow time for further political discussion to take place without the threat of violence.
The first stage of the agreement, which stipulated the removal of heavy weaponry from the buffer zone, was successful. The NLF promptly withdrew its weapons in what was seen as a victory for Turkey, who has taken the responsibility for negotiating with fighters inside the buffer zone. Although HTS did not initially reveal its stance on the agreement, it too seemed to withdraw its weapons in time for the 10th October deadline.
More problematic, however, was the second deadline of the 15th October for the removal of jihadists from the area. There were some early reports that HTS and al-Nusra (another jihadist organisation) had refused to withdraw from the demilitarised zone because Turkey hadn’t guaranteed their safety. And so, the deadline came and went without any sight of the rebels leaving. HTS made a public statement vowing that they would continue to fight, and that they refused to trust Russia. General Naji Mustafa of the NLF also said that Russia’s commitment to the deal could not be trusted, insisting ‘we are absolutely ready for the forthcoming battle’.
There are fears that a breakdown in the agreement will give the Syrian Government and Russia an excuse to carry out a military offensive on Idlib. This is compounded by an ominous text message received by residents in the buffer zone last Friday from the Syrian army reading ‘get away from the fighters, their fate is sealed and near’. These fears are not unfounded; both Assad’s government and Putin have demonstrated their determination to win back all Syrian territory. In the past, Russia has also cited the presence of HTS as a reason for attacking areas of Idlib.
Despite this, there are signs that Russia is remaining flexible and willing to support Turkey’s implementation of the agreement on the ground, even though the deadlines have not immediately been met. This is in the interests of both Russia and Turkey, despite their opposing sides in the conflict. Putin has already spent a vast amount on the war in Syria and does not want to take responsibility for the humanitarian disaster that could occur if there was a military assault on Idlib. Russia is also concerned with reconstruction in Syria, which could feasibly start sooner if a peace is maintained. Turkey shares a border with Idlib and wants to avoid the inevitable influx of refugees if its people are forced to escape through the north.
It is a good sign that Russia has continued to honour the Sochi agreement. Although many are understandably cynical, this may well be the last remaining hope for the safety of the three million people living in Idlib. Talking about whether such an agreement will work in the ‘long term’ for Syria seems redundant given the fast changing nature of the war. What matters for now is that both sides remain committed to a diplomatic solution for Idlib that minimises casualties and sets a course for the Syrian Government to follow.