Averting Disaster in Syria’s Idlib Province


Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°56
Beirut/Brussels, 9 February 2018

What happened? The de-escalation zone in north-western Syria is on the brink of collapse. Boosted by Russian air support, Syrian regime troops are advancing toward the Idlib region. Amid obstruction by the Syrian regime and Iran-backed militias, Turkish troops took up positions near the front lines in early February.

Why did it happen? The area is controlled by the jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which until now has rejected de-escalation. Russia, Iran and Western powers consider HTS an irreconcilable terrorist organisation that must be defeated militarily. Turkey has a more nuanced view, but it has been preoccupied with its fight against Kurdish forces.

Why does it matter?  A regime offensive into the heart of Idlib may be imminent. It would likely involve aerial bombardment and a battle against thousands of militants in densely populated areas, creating another humanitarian catastrophe and prompting an exodus toward the Turkish border, further straining Turkey’s ability to cope with large numbers of Syria refugees.

What should be done?  Turkey should deploy along the front line in cooperation with Russia, which should press the Syrian regime to delay, or even desist from, its assault. This would buy time for renewed Turkish efforts to curtail transnational jihadist influence within HTS in favour of militants more open to de-escalation and compromise.

I. Overview

Idlib, a province in north-western Syria, together with slices of territory in adjacent provinces, is the country’s largest remaining rebel stronghold. It is also a humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen, if the Syrian regime and its allies launch an all-out assault to retake it. Tens of thousands of battle-hardened fighters, including many jihadists, are entrenched in a densely populated area. Tackling the militants head on will come at a massive human cost. Regime advances further east and Russian bombardment of infrastructure in the area have already led to significant displacement. If fighting reaches towns along the Aleppo-Hama highway and further west, the outcome will be many times worse. All options for Idlib are bad, but cooperation between Ankara and Moscow might permit Turkish troops to deploy further along the front line between rebels and regime forces. For Ankara, it is a risky last-minute gambit, but almost certainly the only means of averting an assault on Idlib that, as in Aleppo, would wreak havoc upon the inhabitants and propel an exodus toward the Turkish border.

On 14-15 September 2017, at the sixth round of the Russian-led Astana talks geared toward ending or at least containing the Syrian war, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to demarcate a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib and adjacent slices of territory in other provinces. Yet the three “guarantors” of this accord faced an immediate conundrum – the domination of the area by the armed movement Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the core of which is al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Russia and Iran (as well as Western countries) consider HTS a terrorist group that must be destroyed. While Turkey has a more differentiated view of the group, it nevertheless signed up to the “joint statement” that commits all parties to fight the jihadists. In turn, HTS rejected the de-escalation scheme. The dilemma is particularly acute for Turkey, which reportedly agreed to take charge of the de-escalation zone’s western sector, where the bulk of its population lives. Turkey also is concerned that fleeing civilians and fighters will head toward its border if the situation deteriorates.

In mid-October, Turkish forces deployed near the rebel-held area’s northern fringe. That limited engagement, which was facilitated by an understanding between Ankara and HTS, allowed Turkey to address its principal objective in Idlib: containing a potential southward advance of PKK-affiliated Kurdish fighters in the enclave of Afrin, further north. But if Turkey wants to achieve its secondary objective – preventing a new intensification of the Syrian refugee crisis – it will need to influence events across the front separating the HTS-dominated rebels and the Syrian regime. To this end, Ankara needs to deploy deeper into rebel-held territory.

In late January 2018, it ramped up efforts to do just that. In an attempt to replicate the October agreement with HTS, Ankara ordered a large military convoy to take up positions just beyond the Aleppo-Hama highway, right at the front line separating rebel and regime forces. The troops were twice forced to turn around, however, by regime shelling of the road ahead. Another convoy dispatched a week later did reach its destination; it returned fire when it came under attack, reportedly from Iranian-backed militias.

The deployment of Turkish forces, which ideally would continue down the front line, now offers the only – albeit slim – hope of averting a no-holds-barred regime offensive. It incurs significant risks for Ankara, requiring it to strike tacit deals with HTS leaders, on one hand, and Russia, on the other. The former would have to accept Turkey’s deployment (which they appear to have done), prevent HTS dissidents or other militants in Idlib from attacking Turkish forces (which could prove harder), and deter similar attacks on the regime (which is likely to be harder still). It is unclear whether HTS leaders could enforce such an understanding with Turkey without the movement fracturing. But the alternative for HTS is clear: a regime offensive will mean the loss of its territorial control and the death of many HTS leaders. For those in the movement who may aspire to some form of political role in the post-conflict dispensation – there are signs that some do – it would also be the end of such ambitions.