The ticking bomb of Idlib

The last rebel stronghold was doomed into ruins amidst Assad, Turkey and Russia

Focal war theaters in Syria have been restructured many times in the long-standing history of the civil/proxy war. During the past months, developments from the north-eastern front shifted to the north-west, as the Idlib province holds a prominent ground. This dreadful evolution comes as no surprise.

In 2012, the Assad government lost most of Idlib to the Free Syrian Army. Jihadists can be traced among the rebel ranks from day one. The Al-Qaeda affiliates, then Al-Nusra Front-now Tahrir Al-Sham, played a vital role in driving Assad and Shia militias out of the region. Idlib’s strategic position eventually fell under the hands of the “Syrian Opposition” in 2015. Even after clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the jihadists afterward, Idlib managed to become a major anti-Assad fortress in the following years. The region jumped into the international spotlight in 2017, after alleged chemical attacks by Assad against the rebels. Turkey had already set foot in the area supporting the “Syrian Opposition”. Since 2018, the Idlib front remains frozen. It was supposed to be a demilitarized zone monitored by Turkey and Russia. But breaches of the agreement were common every now and then.

Pro-government forces swore to recapture the region. Assad conducted military offensives in 2019, while Russia assisted with airstrikes that resulted often in civilian massacres. Iran-backed militias of course contributed to the battle against the rebels. But the jihadist rebel front-line could not be easily broken. Assad found it tough to continue the operations ceaselessly. In the meantime, the bombardments intensified in November, right after the Turkish offensive in the Kurds-controlled north-eastern Syria. December became a hell of a month for the hundreds of thousands of civilians that fled from their homes. The Syrian Arab Army slowly started to seize towns and villages in Idlib and the outskirts one by one. Airstrikes continued endlessly to batter Idlib at the dawn of the new decade. The mass exodus of civilians towards the north forced Turkey to threaten Assad with an intervention.

Idlib is the last obstacle Assad and Russia are facing to declare themselves indisputable winners of the conflict. Russia’s support to the Syrian government since 2015 has completely turned the tide of the war, in which Assad’s reign was revitalized. The agreements that have been signed between Russia and Turkey are viable as long as they serve Kremlin’s ambitions. Putin and Assad are claiming to be fighting terrorism the same way Turkey did against the Kurds. But the battle for Idlib escalated abruptly when Turkish soldiers were killed by Assad forces in observation points. This incident alone, without taking into consideration Turkish worries for a new refugee wave, was a cause to trigger militarization actions from Ankara. Simultaneously, Israel won’t stop its own airstrikes against Iranian proxies in the region. The military pressure in Syria is heavy at the moment.

The Turkish-Russian entente approach in the wider region sooner or later would have to face itself. Supporting rival factions in a conflict means that you have conflicting interests. Putting those differences aside in order to ostracize western influence is a thing, but in the end, only one agenda can dominate the next day. The antithetical situation won’t change unless one side abandons its claims. It goes without saying that the retreating power in this presumable scenario would be Turkey, as it cannot contain a Russian hostility. Unfortunately, all the intermediate and unclear stages of the relationship between the two powers are serving destabilization. Idlib has been condemned as a proxy battlefield since Turkey decided to involve further in the Syrian civil war knowing that Russian aspirations want Assad to emerge completely victorious.

The Idlib escalation was quietly visible since the early stages of the Assad offensives. Russia and Turkey will have to weigh their gains and their losses under the current situation. Maybe the only feasible resolution would have to include a restriction upon spillover effects, such as the deepening humanitarian crisis, as they have done in the past.