Assad Continues Campaign to Restore “Sovereign” Territory
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has deployed forces into the Idlib Governorate. The northwestern province, which once garnered significant archaeological intrigue and supported a thriving agricultural industry, now functions as a terminal stronghold for the Syrian rebels.
Assad’s army seeks to recapture the critical Abu al-Duhar Airbase – taken by the al-Nusra Front, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) predecessor, in September 2015 – and, with the help of its Iranian and Hezbollah allies, have repelled pointed counterstrikes by anti-government insurgents.
The rebellion in Idlib consists of several ideologically dissimilar groups, but HTS, a Salafi al-Qaeda affiliate, remains preeminent in the region. Other entities collectively fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have condemned HTS and have attributed Assad’s successful Idlib campaign to the organization’s rogue, uncooperative leadership, and with rebel defeat seemingly imminent, the governorate’s geopolitical significance has not gone unnoticed by prominent regional actors.
Idlib has served as a safe haven, of sorts, for enemies of the Syrian state and displaced victims of war in Aleppo. Yet, as Assad intensifies his efforts to retake “every inch” of pre-2011 Syria, Idlib residents face a stark choice: to endure the relentless violence and winter cold, or to flee to Turkey, Idlib’s immediate neighbor to the north. The fighting in Idlib has displaced up to 100,000 Syrians thus far, the International Rescue Committee reports.
“[Some of the 2.6 million Idlib citizens] have told us that they will have no choice but to uproot themselves once again and head further north. They will be heading to displacement camps that are already far beyond capacity, which means their situation will get even worse, in the dead of a wet, cold winter” the IRC’s Thomas Garofalo said.
For Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, protracted violence in Idlib constitutes a humanitarian and political disaster.
“Carrying out increased attacks in Idlib will cause new migration waves and victimization there. This is very dangerous and wrong,” Yildirim said. “Turkey has been deploying forces inside northern Idlib and setting up bases there after agreeing with Iran and Russia to establish a ‘de-escalation zone’…It is very wrong for the Assad regime to launch an offensive, without differentiating civilians, in order to gain land.”
Turkey has long supported FSA forces, and, along with its GCC allies, has actively fought to curb expanding Iranian influence throughout the Levant. However, while an Iranian proxy on its southwest border is less than ideal for the Ankara administration, the Assad regime is certainly preferred to the Kurds in the east, and Turkey’s immediate concern regarding the Idlib conflict is the potential for yet another wave of Syrian refugees – an influx that the country can ill-afford to withstand.
As of December 2017, the UNHCR estimated that Turkey fosters nearly 3.5 million Syrian refugees, which is more than any other state in the MENA region (Lebanon sits second with roughly 2.2 million refugees). Thus, Turkey’s attempts to demarcate de-escalation zones in September can be construed as an endeavor to protect its borders rather than a push to promote sustainable peace. After all, Ankara – after funding Syrian rebels for six years – hopes to avoid armistice agreements that maintain the Assad presidency.
While Idlib falls firmly within de-escalated areas that should have remained as such until March, it should be noted that the HTS did not participate in negotiations between Turkey, Iran, and Russia – an omission that Damascus cites to justify its intrusion into rebel territory.
Going into 2018, Turkey’s efforts to exert its influence in Syria has a proved a fruitless exercise. Despite Turkey’s efforts to depose Assad, an Iranian puppet, the Syrian despot has survived the worst and has now pushed Ankara’s FSA allies to the brink – trapping them in a northwest enclave along the Turkish border. In addition, the Erdogan presidency will be perturbed by an increasingly powerful Syrian-Kurdish presence.
The biggest losers, though, are undoubtedly the Syrian people, and as Assad continues to crush non-regime actors throughout the country, they will face additional hardships, and the international community – including Turkey – will be increasingly called upon to absorb large swathes of refugees.
The worst is yet to come.