How the Syrian civil war has mutated again

As Assad sets his sights on Idlib province, the stage is set for one of the fiercest confrontations so far.

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Here we go once more. Bashar al-Assad is turning his attention towards Syria’s last significant pocket of anti-regime resistance, located in the northern province of Idlib, close to the Turkish border. He is approaching this campaign buoyed by a series of decisive victories in the south that brought the Quneitra and Daraa governorates back under regime control – the latter being the province that triggered the original uprising in 2011. Having already re-established control elsewhere, such as in Aleppo in December 2016, and Homs almost a year before that, Assad has been slowly reasserting himself over Syria’s most important and strategic areas.

As the battle now moves to Idlib province, the last important redoubt for the armed opposition, the stage is set for one of the fiercest confrontations of the war so far. Over the last 24 months, whenever Assad reclaimed various parts of the country, rebels and activists who resisted peace deals were moved to Idlib in brokered agreements. Convoys of lime-green buses have become an infamous endnote to these revanchist campaigns, ferrying beleaguered rebels and their families up to Idlib.

What this means is that the province is now home to the most hardened and determined opponents of the regime. They have already experienced the pitiless onslaught of Assad’s military machine (and its Russian and Iranian proxies) elsewhere but have refused to break. They will not give up easily and are preparing for a bitter campaign.

The composition of the opposition in Idlib is diverse. Unarmed activists from the earliest days of the uprising in 2011 still hold sporadic public demonstrations, chanting slogans against Assad – but also against jihadist groups and their leaders operating in the region.

A new group was created in May, the National Front for Liberation, which comprises factions from the Free Syrian Army  along with more reactionary groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki, that  have been accused of war crimes. The idea behind this new formation was that it would distinguish elements of the armed opposition from outright jihadist organisations, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda.

The National Front for Liberation is closely supported by Turkey, which is becoming an increasingly significant player as the conflict in and around Idlib intensifies. Indeed, Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended meetings in Tehran last week alongside Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani of Iran to discuss the fate of Idlib.

It did not go well. During the closing press conference, Erdogan’s pleas for restraint were publicly rebuked by Putin, who called for the “total annihilation of terrorists in Syria”. This is a turn of phrase consistently used by Assad in reference to all opposition groups.

This will trouble Erdogan, who fears another wave of refugees moving towards Turkey when the assault on Idlib reaches an intensity seen elsewhere. The region is home to an estimated three million people (of which one million are children), and the strain on Turkey’s public services will be acute. Some of these refugees will also head for Europe, further destabilising an already volatile political environment.

Yet, while civilians and activists will flee towards Turkey, the armed opposition and jihadist groups will seek a new redoubt – one which sits on their doorstep but has gone largely unnoticed. Turkish forces have been occupying a sliver of land in the northern parts of the neighbouring Aleppo province, stretching from Afrin to Jarabulus.

From Turkey’s perspective, the Afrin-Jarabulus enclave has stopped the westward march of an empowered Kurdish movement that Erdogan regards as a threat. He has consistently deployed Turkish military muscle to crush Kurdish aspirations, most recently with a brutal campaign to undermine Kurdish control in Afrin.

Aymenn Jawad Ali al-Tamimi, an analyst of the Syrian conflict, suggests that Turkish actions inside the northern Aleppo enclave point to a long-term presence there. “There is a substantial presence of Turkish troops,” he says. Beyond that, Tamimi argues that there is also a broader political agenda at play. “They are promoting the Turkish language in these areas,” he says. “They have established postal services and set up schools based on the Turkish curriculum.” Under Turkish management and training, a so-called Free Police has also been created to enforce order across the region.

It is unclear what Erdogan’s ultimate aspirations are for the enclave but the presence of Turkish troops means that even if the rebels lose Idlib, there is a safe zone for them next door. That is where the tens of thousands of fighters still inside Idlib – many of whom arrived from battle zones across Syria – are likely to head once Idlib becomes impossible to hold.

The war has become a zero-sum game for both the rebels and jihadists who find themselves confined to Idlib. They are among the most committed of Assad’s opponents, having already refused to surrender or negotiate elsewhere in the country. There are also thousands of foreign fighters in Idlib province, among them many Britons and other Europeans.

Each side is already accusing the other of preparing to use chemical weapons in a foreshadowing of the propaganda war that will follow should these weapons be used in Idlib, as they have been elsewhere. For the thousands of ordinary Syrians who fled to Idlib in search of safety, this new offensive will produce yet another wave of gruesome human suffering.

Some policymakers are tempted to see the Syrian conflict as drawing to an end, particularly as the campaign to recapture Idlib gets ever closer. Although the intensity of the war is certainly paring, as rebels find themselves displaced into the protected northern Aleppo enclave, there is in truth no sense of an ending to the misery and suffering. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and Deputy Director at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article appears in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism