Idlib proves problematic for diplomats in Kazakhstan

After nine years of war, it is unclear how much leeway Ankara will be granted in resolving its interests in Syrian territory.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari (C) speaks with other participants during a session of the peace talks on Syria in Nur-Sultan, April 26. (Reuters)
Stubborn differences. Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari (C) speaks with other participants during a session of the peace talks on Syria in Nur-Sultan, April 26. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Delegations from Turkey, Russia and Iran convened alongside representatives of the Syrian government and the country’s armed opposition in Kazakhstan to revive efforts towards drafting a new constitution for the Syrians and address the issue of the rebel-held province of Idlib.

Negotiators issued a statement April 26 expressing “serious concern with the attempts of the terrorist organisation Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to increase its control over the area and reaffirmed the determination to continue cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate [the Islamic State] ISIS, al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with al-Qaeda or ISIS.”

Idlib has consistently proven problematic to the Russian-led peace process. Long a stronghold for the formerly al-Qaeda-linked HTS, the Syrian province, which borders Turkey, has become a dumping ground for surrendering opposition fighters and their families.

With regime control of large parts of Syria secured by 2018, Idlib presented a clear problem. Controlled by rebels but sought after by Damascus and Turkey — the latter hoping to secure a buffer zone along its border — the fate of Idlib and what the United Nations estimated to be 3 million inhabitants was far from certain.

However, respite was offered through a Russia-brokered deal in which Turkey committed to overseeing the withdrawal of HTS and other rebel groups and all heavy weapons from a demilitarised zone along Idlib’s borders.

That hasn’t happened and the Syrian government and Russian forces have carried out air attacks to push back the rebels.

An apparent oversight by developers at Instagram led to the Syrian presidency’s site being closed April 23, an act Damascus quickly labelled as “war” because wresting control of the rebel provinces from the rebels would present a much-needed propaganda victory.

However, in the way stands HTS, Turkey and potentially the regime’s sponsors in Moscow, eager to avoid the propaganda backlash resulting from being blamed for a humanitarian disaster as thousands of refugees flee the fighting.

UN Senior Humanitarian Adviser for Syria Najat Rochdi said that as many as 106,000 people had fled Idlib since January as clashes between the rebels and the Syrian government and its allies escalated.

“Idlib is lawless in the sense that no state government controls or governs it,” Senior Military Analyst Omar Lamrani from risk analysis and intelligence consulting firm Stratfor said. “There are, however, nonstate-level structures of governance in place run by various militias and councils with their own set of rules and regulations, the largest belonging to HTS.”

Given how the rebels are entrenched in the province, Turkish claims that it could impose a ceasefire on HTS and other rebel groups in Idlib were likely overly ambitious.

“HTS is powerful enough that Turkey cannot simply order it to do what Ankara wants without risking a serious backlash,” Lamrani said. “Turkey has tried to prop up the other rebel groups in Idlib as a counterweight but that strategy has largely failed to yield significant results.”

Columb Strack, principal Middle East and North Africa analyst at Risk Consultants/IHS Markit, agreed. “Turkey has been trying to persuade HTS and other jihadist factions to merge into the more ‘moderate’ coalition of Syrian opposition forces acting as Turkish proxies,” he said. “This has so far failed though because HTS remains violently opposed to any kind of future reconciliation with the Syrian government.”

Moreover, Turkey was unlikely to confront Idlib’s jihadists militarily “while Erdogan’s priority is to establish a secure zone along the entire length of Turkey’s southern border with Syria to prevent infiltration by Kurdish militants,” Strack said.

However, after nine years of war, it is unclear how much leeway Ankara will be granted in resolving its interests in Syrian territory. Speaking April 24 to the UN Security Council, Russian Deputy Envoy to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov said the status quo in Idlib was not viable option, posing risks to Syria and the region.

“The situation in Idlib remains volatile. Militants from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham do not cease to attack the governmental forces. They strike indiscriminately, including against civil infrastructure. Peaceful people die,” he said.

“Russia is frustrated that HTS continues to operate from Idlib and has placed pressure on Turkey to crack down on them,” Lamrani said. “This has also given Russia and the Syrian government a pretext to continue targeting the province.”

Damascus particularly, Lamrani said, “has been just as guilty as HTS of violating the ceasefire agreement in the sense that they have continued their attacks.”

Quoted April 25 by al-Monitor, retired Ambassador Mithat Rende’s predictions for Turkish ambitions in Idlib were grim.

“It looks like Russia and the regime will tell Turkey in the end that it has failed to achieve its end of the bargain and take matters into their own hands because their patience has run out,” Rende said.