The regime continues to pound opposition and rebel-held areas in Syria, and Idlib is expected to be the site of the next big assault. However, unlike the previous battles, Turkish troops' presence in Idlib may complicate matters.
As the Bashar al Assad regime continues its assault to seize control of Syria's rebel-held territories, it is likely to turn to the final opposition stronghold of Idlib next, having gained control of other key areas under opposition control.
The UN also warned of large-scale humanitarian disaster in Idlib at its meeting last week regarding the future of Syria.
“Our concern is on the humanitarian side, because Idlib is the big new challenge,” said UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
“2.5 million people, and you will not believe that all of them are terrorists,” he continued, referring to the regime’s attacks against any and all opposition and rebel groups by labelling them “terrorist” as justification.
Unlike the other opposition-held areas coming under attack by the regime, Turkish troops are stationed in the province as part of the de-escalation deals brokered by Turkey, and regime backers Russia and Iran in 2017. Idlib, which is of particular strategic and security importance for Turkey and Russia, stood out as a region where the agreement could not hold.
Turkey has established ten “observation posts” so far in Idlib as part of the de-escalation agreement in 2017, that was supposed to reduce violence in the territories. However, the regime has continued its air strikes in the region, saying it was targeting terrorists, referring to Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a former Al Qaeda affiliate that controls parts of Idlib. However, the air strikes mostly target civilian areas, instead of HTS-held areas.
A high-ranking Turkish diplomatic official told TRT World that despite the agreements, some regime commanders have been acting on their own accord on the ground, and launching attacks on opposition territories.
These commanders are later welcomed as great heroes in their country, the source continued.
Idlib is currently under control of the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), different rebel groups, and the formerly Al Qaeda-affiliated HTS. The area is beset with infighting among the different groups.
However, as the regime attempts to take control of all opposition and rebel-held territories, the newest attack is likely to be on a larger scale, with disastrous humanitarian consequences.
Evacuation deals and demographic change
This week, the regime struck a deal with HTS to evacuate Yarmouk, a refugee camp in southern Damascus in exchange for the evacuation of Shia-majority villages of Fuah and Kafriya in Idlib.
According to Anadolu Agency, the deal also includes the FSA-held areas of Yalda, Babbila, and Beit Sahem, also near Yarmouk.
The regime, with the support of its backers, has been carrying out demographic change throughout Syria by trying to create Shia-majority areas to consolidate its rule. Its partial evacuation of Shias in Idlib may also point in this direction.
Turkey has been trying to remove HTS presence in the region because the regime and Russia will use its presence as an excuse to bomb the area, the diplomatic official said.
Meanwhile, Turkey has been negotiating with the regime and Russia to try and solve “everything on the table,” the source continued.
Preventing humanitarian disaster
A regime attack on Idlib would have disastrous humanitarian consequences, and create another flood of refugees into Turkey and beyond.
As the main opposition-held territory, Idlib’s population has swelled from a little over 1.5 million at the beginning of the war, to over 2.5 million today as Syrians opposed to Assad were forced to move from regime-held areas.
Turkey has been trying to prevent such a crisis, the diplomatic official said. Turkey’s priority is protecting civilians and has also been increasing troop presence at the observation posts, working to strengthen local councils, and negotiating to unite various opposition groups in order to pressure HTS.
In recent weeks, the northeastern province, which has a border with Turkey, has seen another rise in its population as people from rebel-held territories in eastern Ghouta and Douma evacuated to Idlib has part of a deal struck with the regime.
Since Russia intervened on behalf of the regime in 2015, the regime has steadily taken over opposition-held territories, using brutal siege tactics, chemical weapons, and indiscriminate fire and assaults against civilians, including women and children, that experts have said amounted to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In addition to opposition-held territories, the YPG terror organisation is another key actor in northern Syria.
But the regime co-operated with the YPG against Daesh, with the understanding that it could re-take the territories after the war, even though the YPG had declared its desire for an autonomous region in Syria’s north since the beginning of the conflict.
As the war progressed, the YPG positioned itself as a key player for the future of Syria by overtaking large swathes of land in northern Syria with the technical, logistical and military support of the US and has been working to consolidate its control.
There is a “deconfliction line” demarcated by the Euphrates river in northeastern Syria between US-backed YPG areas and Russia and Iran-backed regime areas. It has been the site of sporadic clashes that have seen Russian nationals killed. While regime forces had crossed the Euphrates river into YPG-occupied territories, in recent months, they have been pushed back.
The YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK, a designated terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and EU, which has been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years.
The Syrian uprising began in 2011, with a crackdown on anti-regime protests.
Since then, the conflict has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced more than 5.4 million people, according to UN figures.