The future of Idlib

    Syria is shattered, divided and the future seeds of discontent have already been sown. Idlib should not be allowed to go quietly into the night.

    GK Chesterton once said that “impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance.” Hence the difficulty in maintaining diplomatic demeanour when faced with the sheer scale of death and destruction wrought upon millions of Syrians by the Assad regime. As the situation in Idlib descends into further chaos due the latest regime assault, the sentimentalists among global observers will rightly associate the name of Idlib with an unparalleled humanitarian tragedy in living memory; a disaster instigated by a ruthless political order that has relentlessly and vindictively quashed all who have dared to oppose it. The sentimentalists, however, will leave the situation at that. On Monday, a Turkish delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal met their Russian counterparts in Moscow. The impasse may give way to an engagement at the presidential level in the near future.

    The aim is to de-escalate tensions. Yet the Assad regime’s and its Russian backers’ pitiful track-record at keeping ceasefires and its stalwart intention to annihilate all opposition does not bode well at all for a stable ceasefire, nor future peace. Three of the four so-called de-escalation zones established in prior attempts to create and enforce a ceasefire have already been attacked and swallowed up by the regime. Neither does the wholesale looting of private properties, the desecration of graves in recently captured opposition territory, the regime’s indiscriminate barrel-bombing, and the targeting of hospitals as uncovered by the New York Times raise confidence that the regime is interested in anything bar total capitulation, and peace on its own terms only.

    Before the Sochi agreements of September 2019 even, the regime had already signalled its intention to defeat wholesale the bastion of anti-Assad opposition that is Idlib. The purported offer of a border strip under Turkish control does nothing to address the humanitarian dimension of the conflict and demonstrates the desire of the regime to crush the Syrians who have opposed it. It is also pure propaganda to brand those who oppose the Assad family rule as either extremists or terrorists, or, to try and achieve the same goal by contorting the status quo as one of solely Turkish (or even American in some cases) ‘occupation’. This serves to erase the voice of and dehumanise the millions who have risen against Assad.

    Locally, there is a hierarchy of hate. The population in Idlib may ‘tolerate’ groups such as Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), in so far as they may resist Assad. Otherwise, there is clear disdain by the locals themselves against any and all extreme and authoritarian groups – especially that of the regime. More so, the unrelenting, indiscriminate, and vindictive actions of Assad have fostered the anger that has sustained radicalisation and extremism. This is not to explain away the presence of extremists, but nor does that reality absolve the regime of its actions.

    Extermination over reconciliation

    On the ground, Assad’s primary concern has been to seize the strategic M5 highway, a large portion of which threaded through opposition territory. At least 900,000 civilians have been forced to flee the regime’s indiscriminate violence since December, part and parcel of what the UN has described as the “biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st Century.” At any rate, in response to Assad and its supporters’ recent aggression and in light of a desire to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, further Turkish involvement has been induced. Turkey has now sent scores of reinforcements into the region.

    Previously, it had only manned a series of observation posts in line with previous agreements, installations of which the Assad regime now encircles many. Turkey has vowed to retaliate against any further violence against its forces, while its ongoing military build-up gives credence to Turkey’s warning that it will resort to force by March 1, if the regime does not withdraw and honour the Sochi agreement. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reified Turkey’s consistent stance against the Syrian regime and described Russia’s support for the Assad rule as one of artificial respiration envisaged to fail ultimately. Regime officials seem determined to provoke Turkey domestically as well, with one member of the parliament in Damascus calling for renewed support for YPG/PKK terrorism inside Turkey, as well as a hasty recognition of the so-called Armenian Genocide.

    At home, the Turkish public has been incensed by the death of its troops by a Russian-backed regime air strike. A rhetorical tug-of-war between the US and Russia followed the attack on Turkish personnel, with US officials swift to extend public support for Turkey. US Special Representative James Jeffrey arrived in the country soon after and described the fallen troops as martyrs. In return, Russia reiterated the material support the US has previously provided to the PKK/YPG in Syria. At the same time, just how far Russia can contain the Syrian regime and strike a meaningful agreement at the negotiation table with Turkey is a further conundrum. The exact extent of Russian influence over the regime seems to oscillate depending on the nature of the event in question.

    In terms of US-Turkey relations, Idlib, and the portions of Syria occupied by the Syrian Democratic Forces (controlled by YPG/PKK) with US support are mutually exclusive from a geographical perspective, and so there is less space for any Turkish manoeuvres in the region to fall foul of US interests. An opportunity has thus emerged instead for the US and the ‘West’ to redeem the failure to deter Assad and the humanitarian catastrophe that followed since. Media attention can now be entirely focussed on Idlib, now that Daesh (and the speculation of its resurgence), is by and large nullified, and the conflict between Turkey and the YPG/PKK adjourned.

    Over the years, there has been no effective deterrence of the regime, nor adequate support for the Syrian Revolution. For all the recent talk of greater European engagement in the geopolitical hotspots of the world, the nations of the ‘West’ (but also the affluent Arab states of the region), have displayed an alarming resistance to the prospect of refugees who have sought safety and the sanctity of human life, but at the same time, have done little to stem the tide of refugees from its source and by doing so, uphold the ideals the ‘West’ purports to stand for.

    References to an Assad victory in the now nine-year-long catastrophe that has been the Syrian Civil War were made at least as far back in 2017. In reality, the Assad regime inherits a shattered and divided nation, with the seeds of future discontent and the enormous repression the regime will need to exert to quash it already in play. Perhaps the latter is precisely why the regime prefers extermination rather than reconciliation, as the regime knows it does not have the heart or spirit to earn respect.

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