Exhausted population in Idlib finds itself lost between governments, armies and militants

For Russia, like Iran, retaking Idlib would mark the culmination of a costly campaign to reassert Bashar al-Assad’s rule over Syria.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Smoke raises in the Syrian village of Kafr Ain in the southern Idlib province after an air strike on September 7.        (AFP)
A lethal precursor. Smoke raises in the Syrian village of Kafr Ain in the southern Idlib province after an air strike on September 7. (AFP)

TUNIS - As defiant mass rallies took place across Idlib, calling for the regime and its allies to stay their widely anticipated offensive to retake the rebel province, the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia gathered to discuss the future of the last holdout in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s bloody campaign to retake “every inch” of Syria.

All have a stake in Idlib. For Turkey, the province serves as an additional buffer zone to the territory Ankara carved out for itself around Afrin, allowing ground for refugees to gather without threatening to spillover into Turkey.

For Russia, further to establishing the primacy of its Astana process, is the opportunity to clear the staging point for mortar and drone attacks against its base in Latakia. For Russia, like Iran, retaking Idlib would mark the culmination of a costly campaign to reassert Assad’s rule over Syria.

For the civilians and rebels, the matter is of life and death. There are approximately 2.9 million civilians, including an estimated 1 million children, in Idlib, the United Nations said. More than half of that number have been displaced from other mostly rebel-held areas of Syria or travelled to Idlib to escape the regime.

Around 30,000 of that number are thought to be rebels, whose orientation ranges from the 10,000 or so jihadist fighters aligned with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to the remnants of the relatively secular rebels who fled the south-west for Idlib rather than reconcile with the regime and its Russian allies.

However, as Assad and his allies eye the rebel province, such distinctions risk being rendered moot.

“One of the problems is that everyone has a different definition of ‘terrorist,’” said Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “For the international community, it is organisations such as al-Qaeda that are terrorists. However, for the regime and Russia, it’s anyone opposing Damascus and that includes groups such as the White Helmets, who are also present in Idlib.”

As the United Nations talked of opening humanitarian corridors into regime-controlled territory, which many in Idlib had fled, some appear to be losing hope. Alaa, a father sheltering with his family in the province told the Independent: “I have no plan at all for the coming offensive. I have no money even for tomorrow. There is literally nothing I can do. I would prefer to die with my family than be displaced again.”

“If Idlib falls, my family and I will go with it. I’m tired of poverty and running from place to place seeking ‘safety.’ We are just preparing to die,” the former volunteer medic said.

Air strikes and artillery have targeted armed groups along Idlib’s frontiers for several days. Agence France-Presse reported that hundreds of families were streaming from settlements in trucks piled high with goods taken from homes swiftly abandoned.

“It’s hard to say how long any offensive could continue,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Secu­rity. “Unlike past campaigns, for the rebels this should be a case of standing their ground and fighting to the last.

“However, again, unlike past campaigns the terrain in Idlib is quite different. Across greater Idlib, you’ve got large plains, which make it easier for a conventional army to manoeuvre. However, in the north and west, closer to the Turkish border, you’ve got some pretty mountainous country and that’s where the bulk of the jihadists are.”

While the terrain of past campaigns might have been different, the lessons of failures, particularly those in Daraa, remain. “The rebels learnt a lot from the south-west campaign,” Heras said. “There, some groups agreed to reconcile and, after that, the opposition pretty much collapsed.

“HTS drew a lot from that. Within Idlib, they’re exerting real pressure on any group talking about reconciling with Damascus, up to and including assassinating key figures within them.”