ALL EYES ON IDLIB: THE FINAL CHAPTER IN THE SYRIAN WAR
Syria has been at war for several years now, and the war might be on the verge of ending with the rebel armies losing all their strongholds, all but one. Idlib remains the last rebel stronghold and with the Syrian Army knocking on its doors, the stage might be set for yet another full-blown armed conflict in Syria. This might be much more than just another armed conflict; this can potentially be the worst Syria has ever seen causing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the province of Idlib.
Syria has been at war for nine years now, what started as peaceful protests against the authoritarian regime has transformed into a complete Civil War. The protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring movement, were violently repressed and the rebel forces coalesced into an alliance to fight the government. In the beginning, these forces consisted of army defectors and other Syrian citizens, but as the war went on, more groups, most of them hard-line Islamic forces, have joined these forces. But since 2011, this war has evolved from just an anti-government movement to something much more than that, this has turned into an international conflict with many countries entering the arena to exert their dominance over the middle-eastern region. The Syrian government has been backed by historical allies Russia and Iran. President Assad being a Shia Muslim gives the conflict a religious angle. The Syrian government has also been backed by several Shia militants, Lebanese Hezbollah being the most prominent one. On the other hand, the rebel forces have been buttressed by Sunni militant groups and have support from Sunni dominant countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.
The Syrian pro-government forces have trounced the rebel forces, with the Rebel forces losing most of their strong holdouts. From day one, President Assad has had only one intention and that was to stay in power, and he is willing to go to any extent for it. Many countries like the US have accused him of war crimes and he has also come under scrutiny on different occasions for the use of Chemical Weapons on his own people. Assad intends to regain control over every inch of Syria, and he has more or less accomplished it, with the province of Idlib being the last rebel stronghold.
During the initial phases of the protests in 2011, Idlib was a hotspot in terms of protests and fights. Soon after, the movement turned into an armed conflict and the rebels managed to get hold of Idlib. But in 2012, following an offensive launched by pro-government forces, Syrian Army managed to regain control over Idlib and agreed to a ceasefire agreement. In the second battle of Idlib in 2015, the Rebel Alliance emerged victorious and regained control over Idlib, and declared it as the seat of the Syrian Interim Government consisting of the opposition forces. Since then, Idlib has been controlled by a number of different factions, as opposed to a single group. In 2017, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) broke off formal ties with Al-Qaeda and declared itself as an independent group. Since then, the HTS has been the dominant power in Idlib and it has been declared as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations.
Pro-Government forces re-captured opposition strongholds in Southern Syria and many rebel fighters have been evacuated to Idlib since. After recapturing Southern Strongholds like Homs and eastern Ghouta and after defeating ISIL, the army now moved to Idlib.
After the fall of Southern Provinces, Idlib remained the last stronghold of the rebel forces which have set their eyes on defeating President Assad. Strategically, this province becomes important for the government due to the border with Turkey and also due to many important highways which run through the province.
Talks of “De-Militarisation”
Turkey has taken in over 3 million Syrian refugees and the Erdogan Government was facing heavy backlashes over this back home in Turkey. This forced the Turkish government to take actions to prevent further violence in Syria. Idlib has been subjected to several peace talks between the Russian and the Turkish government. The first agreement was reached on 17 September 2018, when both countries agreed to create a De-Militarized zone in Idlib which would be patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces. Other terms of this agreement included that radical terrorist groups like HTS should completely leave the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) and the rebels must ensure unrestricted civilian access to M4 and M5 highways.
As events unfolded, it became quite clear that all these talks bore no fruit as these terms were not followed and both groups started launching attacks repeatedly against each other.
HTS never left the DMZ and instead, started launching new attacks against the government. The National Front for Liberation (NFL) signed an agreement which gave HTS control over almost all of Idlib and M4 and M5 highways were never reopened. Even patrolling of the buffer zone by Russian and Turkish forces could not take place. Syrian and Russian jets started bombarding HTS and NFL strongholds and this marked the complete failure of peace attempts. Russian and Syrian government stated that the rebels did not comply with the agreement and hence, justified the military attacks against them.
In August 2019 after repeated offensives by both the sides, the Syrian government unilaterally announced a truce which conditioned that the rebels agree to the 2018 agreement. Shortly after, even this attempt proved to be a futile effort as the rebels refused to vacate the De-Militarized Zone and the Syrian Army went on to capture large parts of the DMZ. In February 2015 after another round of offensives, the Syrian government claimed control over the M5 highway.
On 5 March 2020, Russia and Turkey came to a renewed ceasefire agreement, which included joint Russian and Turkish patrols of a 12 KM wide corridor alongside the M4 highway. This agreement temporarily froze the conflict in Idlib and managed to momentarily prevent any further advance, but this agreement also had flaws of its own. The deal omitted any reference to M5 highways and also did not elaborate on the status of groups like HTS. The deal also did not provide any solutions for the 1 million Syrians stuck at the Turkish border. The HTS also released a statement saying it would not acquiesce to this deal.
Recently, there have been several disagreements between the Turkish and the Russian government regarding Turkish forces and observatory posts in the De-Militarized zone, and hours before writing piece, the news of Russian Airplanes bombing buildings in Idlib came to light. This jeopardizes this new deal. It would be interesting to watch how events unfold and how long the current deal lasts.
What next for Idlib?
With the implications of the current ceasefire uncertain, Idlib moves one step closer to a full blown armed conflict. President Assad has vowed to win back every inch of Syria and a battle in Idlib could be one of the bloodiest battles in the Syrian Civil War. Many experts have even dubbed it as “the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st Century”
In all of this, it is the citizens of Idlib who are suffering the most. Since December 2019, more than 1 million people have left Idlib which makes it the biggest displacement in the Syrian Civil War. Suspension of necessities like basic health facilities has created an even bigger crisis in Idlib. The media might talk about military developments, but it is rare to find a mention of the humanitarian and medical crisis in the province. Syrian Civil War has already caused many casualties and battles of Idlib could increase this number by manifolds.
Cover Image Courtesy: Source