State actors horse trade over Idlib assault as aid agencies brace for the worst

Entry and exit points into the province are shrinking and basic facilities are scarce.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Children try improvised gas masks in their home in northern Idlib province, on September 12. (AFP)
Preparing for the worst. Children try improvised gas masks in their home in northern Idlib province, on September 12. (AFP)

TUNIS - The exodus from Idlib in north-western Syria has begun. Of the approximately 1.5 million displaced people in the province, 30,000 are thought to have fled since September 1. Should the expected assault on the rebel-held province begin in earnest, the United Nations estimated that number could swell to 800,000.

Aid agencies warned of the growing crisis under way in Idlib. Entry and exit points into the province are shrinking and basic facilities are scarce. Outside the province, Ankara and Moscow horse trade territory in Idlib and the fate of the rebel groups in it.

To the east, the United States, which, along with its Kurdish allies, controls as much as 25% of Syria, cautioned against the use of unrestrained violence and chemical warfare.

Speaking at the United Nations on September 11, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of “a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict.”

Aid agencies remain in Idlib, supporting civilians displaced by fighting and the rebel holdouts and their families dumped in Idlib following reconciliation deals with the Assad regime and Russia.

“Our teams are on the ground now and ready to assist,” Wilf Dinnick of Mercy Corps, one of the leading aid groups in Idlib, said by telephone, “but food and clean water can be difficult to access if crossing points are cut off because of fighting. There are about three-four days’ worth of water in many of these communities. Then hygiene becomes a serious concern.”

“For more than six years, we have distributed essential items but, as fighting increases and civilians are caught in the crossfire, they are often forced to flee. Our teams have not seen a huge displacement of people at this point but we are preparing for it,” Dinnick said.

Turkey, despite its apparent failure to halt the offensive at the Tehran summit on September 7, may have achieved a significant step towards that end. By threatening to withdraw from the Russian-sponsored Astana Process, which relies on Ankara’s participation, Turkey appears to have stayed Russia’s hand. This should allow Turkey time to separate the 10,000 or so fighters of al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, (HTS) and relocate them to areas in Idlib’s north under Turkish control.

With HTS controlling more than 60% of the disputed province, it was not clear how Turkey might achieve that end. However, doing so would help protect the large numbers of civilians in Idlib, as well as the approximately 50,000 Turkey proxy fighters in the province.

“What occurs there next will clearly have repercussions not only for post-conflict Syria, but for Syria’s neighbours and potentially Europe,” Barbara Leaf, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, said via e-mail. “Will it be a Grozny-style assault by Syrian forces, backed and enabled by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah? That kind of brutal and indiscriminate military campaign is likely to propel a huge wave of refugees, putting enormous pressure on Turkey, already home to 3.5 million refugees from Syria and Iraq.”

Rather than withdraw entirely from Syria, as US President Donald Trump had previously suggested, the United States has committed to remain in Syria until Iranian influence in that country has been extinguished. To that end, Idlib, or at least the fallout from Idlib, could be critical.

Some indication of the renewed seriousness with which the US administration views Syria can be gauged by the appointment of former Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey as the US special representative to Syria. Given Jeffrey’s history with Ankara, the United States is hoping its influence could shape any conflict in Idlib.

“While the bilateral relationship with Ankara is quite strained, Erdogan knows and respects Jeffrey and has a larger interest in working with the US to forestall an assault on Idlib…” Leaf said. “That commonality of interests — between two countries that together control some 40% of Syrian territory — coupled with coordination with Israel, and key European allies, provides the administration leverage with Moscow, if it chooses to use it.”