By Jamal Laadam*
In the last week, there was a summit in Tehran failed to come up with a keen solution between Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the circumstances of Syria’s Idlib province, the final stage of the Syrian armed opposition.
A ceasefire indicated by Turkish President Erdogan was disapproved and a well-developed government offensive now seems loom, in what is anticipated to be Syria’s bloody warfare yet.
Idlib region is the final stage fence standing between the Syrian government and its military defeat against an insurgency ISIS that began seven years ago.
The northwestern area boundary Turkey was one of the four “de-escalation region” approved by Turkey, Iran, and Russian in May 2017 during the 4th Round of the Astana talks, which had been started earlier that year to seek a political resolution to Syria’s Issue.
Step by step, the three other de-escalation regions – Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and Quneitra and Deraa – were seized and secured by Syrian government forces and their allies. As Damascus grabbed back opposition-held territory, more than thousands of civilians and rebel fighters from those regions were moved to Idlib, waiting for evacuation.
During unchanged condition, the three spots are likely to come up in Idlib: A massive aggression, tremendous onslaught across the region, a protracted offensive, or disagreement among rebels followed by a settlement deal with Damascus. But whatever happens, it will be the civilians directly captured in the extremely populated region that will pay the unexpected war cost. So, the questions that come into Idlib’s spot is what countries are involved and what are their goals?
Yet, Five key actors are likely to determine what is going to be happening next in Idlib: the Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran, as well as Turkey and the United States.
The President Bashar al-Assad, who has frequently declared to repeal “every inch” of Syria, is seeking a “military solution” to the conflict. His aim is to reclaim back entire control to escape having to make concessions to the Syrian opposition.
Taking whole control of Idlib would signify that the opposition has no territorial involvement or presence and as result no influence in any future negotiation process.
During the short-term, the Syrian government needs to build up control over two main highways – the M4, which links the seaport city of Latakia to Aleppo, Raqqa and oil-rich Deir Az Zor; and M5, which connects Damascus to Aleppo, and finally to the trade road to Turkey and Europe.
Tehran has no primary strategic interest in Idlib, especially since the Act of an evacuation process in the two Shia towns of Foua and Kefraya in July.
Even so, Iran partakes Damascus’ aim of removing and defeating the armed opposition and is supporting the offensive with its militias. Iran’s military support goes hand-in-hand with its efforts to impact its presence forever in Syria despite pressure and tension from the US, Israel, and Russia to withdraw.
Russia, like Damascus and Iran, also wishes Idlib seized but would prefer to have the opposition giving up and integrate into the Syrian military divisions under its control like the “Fifth Division” rather than go on in fighting.
It wishes that the size of the rebel stronghold would push Turkey, the European Union, and the US to negotiate a positive political solution, as well as give it more authority in talks on the removal of US sanctions and a resolution in Ukraine.
Turkey, For its part, Idlib’s guaranty power under the Astana agreement – is keen to stop an offensive on the region and sustain its control over it. Already hosting over three million Syrians refugee, Ankara terrifies about a serious crisis in northwest Syria would bring the influx of several refugees into its land and further tension its affected humanitarian capabilities.
At the Tehran conference, the top leaders of Turkey, Russia, and Iran declared opposing views about the way out forward in Idlib, but in a joint statement restated that the Syrian issue can only achieve a final resolution through a “negotiated political process”.
The United States, at the same time, has no mutual strategic interest in Idlib and has pointed out that it does not argue a limited offensive on Idlib. It also wants the HTS (Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), one of the two major armed group controlling Idlib) removed and has already targeted a number of its key leaders towards drone attacks.
After all, US has warned a military reaction if the Syrian government uses chemical weapons. On September 3, US President Donald Trump cautioned in a post on Twitter that al-Assad “must not carelessly attack Idlib”, adding that it would be “a serious humanitarian mistake” for Russian and Iran to “take part in this potential human tragedy”.
Washington fears about Tehran’s involvement in Syria and has notified several times that Iranian forces and militias withdraw. The Trump administration, which earlier examined a withdrawal of its boots from Northeast Syria: territory under the control of US-allied Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, has now made anticipations for their improbable stay.
Does Idlib become a ‘headquarter for extremists in Syria?
Idlib region is subdued by two main armed groups: HTS and al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front, NFL).
Over the past few months, Russian officials have been informing for the removal of HTS.
“This is the final headquarter of terrorists who are attempting to figure out on the region’s status as a de-escalation region, who are willing to keep the civilian population hostage as human shields,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said recently.
HTS, officially named as al-Nusra Group, has an important influence and involvement in Idlib city and other areas in the province.
Al-Nusra Group emerged in 2012 as al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria but, in July 2016, it rejected its pledge of loyalty and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Last year, after it attacked other rebel groups in Idlib, it merged forces with a number of more hardline factions and named itself into to HTS.
According to some surveys, HTS has some more than 10,000 fighters in Idlib, the majority of whom are foreigner fighters. But Ahmad Abazeid, a Turkey-based Syrian analyst, says that number is an exaggeration and the fighters number only a few thousand.
Additionally to HTS, there is also the fewer and more hardline al-Hizb al-Turkestani: the Islamic Party of Turkestan made up mainly of Uighur fighters and Heras al-Din (the Guardians of Religion, a splinter of HTS).
Will chemical weapons be used in Idlib warfare?
In addition to the danger of conventional battling, civilians also face the fear of a chemical weapons attack -a call made by the United Nations, as well as several sides to the conflict.
The United States has cautioned the Syrian government repeatedly against using chemical weapons in Idlib.
As the White House stated in a statement earlier in September. “Let us be clear, it remains our firm stance that if President Bashar al-Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its Allies will respond swiftly and appropriately,” Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told news reporters on September 7 that the US armed forces and the White House are promoting a plan with “military alternatives” in case chemical weapons are used in Idlib region.
Currently, Syrian and Russians officials have refused the US claims and suggested that “staged” chemical weapons attacks are being planned to prompt Western intervention.
While, a “diversified provocateurs, including extremists are calling themselves the White Helmets :”volunteer rescue groups operating in rebel-held parts of Syria”, who are well known for putting on chemical weapons attacks and blaming them on the Syrian government, in order to give the western countries with an excuse to finalize attacks on Syria,” Lavrov told reporters last week.
In accordance with Kabalan, these statements point out that the Syrian government might be planning to use chemical weapons.
In the previous times, he said, the government notice it necessary to use chemical weapons in some areas where conventional arms, including aerial campaigns, were not adequate to make much progress in the battlefield. In particular, the presence of underground shelters and channels has been a huge challenge to Syrian government forces.
“The only way they operate to smoke people out of the channels is by using chemical weapons. Why did al-Assad forces use chemical weapons in Ghouta – because that was the only way to win,” said Kabalan.
During the past three years, rebels have been establishing channels across Idlib’s urban areas. In the lead-up to the potential offensive, amidst expanding fears of possible chemical attacks, more channels have been dug and supported.
If Idlib falls, what is next for Syrian government?
At the Tehran summit, Russia, Iran, and Turkey called to look for a “negotiated political plan” through the Astana diplomatic trail.
Despite that, it sustains unsure what an upcoming political resolution would entail.
Russia and Iran have maintained that Assad President keeps in power. The United States, for its side, has claimed that he cannot be part of a government acceptable to all Syrians.
With the key political opposition bloc performed ineffectively in negotiating on behalf of the Syrian people, those who oppose al-Assad are left without any representation.
It is also unsure whether Syrian refugees will be able to go back again.
While Russia has encouraged and supported returns, SNHR’s Abdulghani believes those who decide to do so will not necessarily find safety back home.
“These refugees will danger detention, torture and will be subject to forced disappearances by the regime,” he said.
There is also a probability that refugees would have no homes to return to. In April, the Syrian government passed the so-called Absentee Property Law, or Law Number 10, which would give citizens 30 days to register their property with the ministry of local administration.
The constitution, which has not yet been realized could see more than 12 million displaced Syrians – either within the Syria or oversea -exposed of the rights to their property.
The move of millions and the death of at least half a million Syrians have also deepened the country’s sectarian divides.
According to Kabalan, while Syria is unlikely to have another outbreak, security will not return to the country yet.
Alternatively, Syria will observe an unstable security circumstance similar to the one in Iraq following the 2003 US invasion. Without a just political solution, Syria will destabilize arena.
To the end, the time of sending off the military strike by the Syrian-Russian army is decided by the time taken to deal with the mentioned scenarios, and all key players will just play the roles imposed on them by the Russian-American accord, this dispute is proved by CNN’s claims that Moscow informed Washington of the possibility of military attack by Russian and Syrian forces on the regions Where the US boots safeguard the militants, and Washington’s reply by warning Moscow from endangering the US military bases in Syria.
About the author:
*Jamal Laadam, Ph.D. student in Jilin University majoring in International relations
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy.