Idlib watches and waits as Sochi deadline passes

For the jihadists locked in Syria’s last rebel-held province, what happens next is a matter of life and death.
Sunday 21/10/2018
A man walks past a damaged building in the town of Binnish in Syria’s  rebel-held northern Idlib province, on October 15. (AFP)
Life on a knife’s edge. A man walks past a damaged building in the town of Binnish in Syria’s rebel-held northern Idlib province, on October 15. (AFP)

TUNIS - The deadline agreed to by Russia and Turkey for the withdrawal of jihadist factions from Idlib province’s demilitarised zone passed with little indication of movement by rebel groups embedded in the proposed areas.

For Turkey, charged with ensuring the deal goes through, the rebels’ reluctance to withdraw is an inconvenience. For Russia, it’s a distraction from Moscow’s wider Syrian strategy. For Damascus, it is a further frustration in its plans to recapture “every inch” of the terrain it has still to govern.

However, for the jihadists locked in Syria’s last rebel-held province, what happens next is a matter of life and death.

On the eve of the October 15 deadline, one of the region’s principal jihadist groups, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), issued a statement titled “The Syrian Revolution Will Not Die.” Vaguely worded and without explicitly accepting or rejecting the provisions of the Russian-Turkish deal reached in Sochi, Russia, the statement appeared to intimate the group’s willingness to consider withdrawing from the disputed region.

“The HTS statement seems somewhat ambiguous as to their intention to comply,” said Linda Robinson, senior international/defence researcher at the RAND Corporation. “More importantly, it is unclear whether Turkey will have the needed sway and military capability to remove them by force, if need be, to comply with the Sochi agreement terms.”

Other jihadist groups in the demilitarised zone, principally Tanzim Huras al-Din, Ansar Dine and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), founded by Uighur jihadists from western China, have either officially rejected or ignored the conditions of the deal.

The stakes in Idlib remain unchanged. There are around 3 million civilians, including approximately 1 million children, in the province. More than half of those were forcibly displaced from other areas of Syria or travelled to the province to escape rule by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

However, also in the province are foreign fighters, including TIP and an assortment of Uzbeks, Chechens and other nationalities, who, surrounded, are deeply invested in unfolding events.

“Russia has clearly signalled a tolerance for some delay and it is in its interest to delay if the outcomes can be achieved,” Robinson said. “An all-out bloodbath does not serve its interests at this juncture. It does, however, care very much about the foreign fighters in Idlib and preventing their escape.”

For Russian policymakers, Idlib’s return to the Assad fold has never been a question of when so much as how. That Assad’s forces cannot recapture the province without external support is a given. However, maintaining Moscow’s monopoly over military support for the Syrian regime around Idlib while Turkey develops various strategies is far from straightforward.

“For now, Russia is concentrating on keeping Iran and its militias as far away from Idlib as they can,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Secu­rity. “Every time an Iranian militia draws close (to Idlib) it draws complaints from the US. Russia can’t afford a confrontation right now, so they need to play for time.”

“The internal dynamics of Idlib are resting on a knife’s edge,” he continued. “Everyone knows Turkey will need to do something at some point. Russia is not going to let them wait forever. We don’t know if that action will come from Ankara directly or from its proxies in Idlib. Most likely it will use its militias within the province against the jihadists and let Idlib collapse under its own weight.

“After that, all that remains is for the more moderate rebels to reconcile with the regime and Assad has a clear path into Idlib.”

5