Humanitarian workers are calling for a negotiated settlement to the Idlib crisis but will the Assad regime call off the military assault?
All eyes are on Tehran where leaders from Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting on Friday to avoid what the UN says a “humanitarian catastrophe” if the Syrian regime attacked the opposition and rebel-held province of Idlib.
The regime led by Bashar al Assad moved its military apparatus toward the south-western region to launch a major offensive in hopes of crushing the last vestiges of a rebellion which started against his rule in late 2011.
Assad is backed by Russia and Iran in the seven year long civil war in which other global powers such as the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel were involved from time to time.
Turkey has troops in Idlib manning twelve observation posts that were set up last year as part of a deal between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.
“The meeting in Tehran is extremely important” to find a negotiated settlement on Idlib that could avert a “bloodbath,” Jan Egeland, the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), tells TRT World.
The NRC is among 150 aid organisations managing relief efforts in Idlib where conflict-hit refugees from different parts of Syria have converged over the years.
Egeland says there are close to 3 million people in Idlib and an overwhelming majority of them are civilians.
“One million are children under the age of 18, there 52,000 babies…[these are] as many babies as armed men. And among those armed men only a tiny minority is listed as terrorists by the UN and member states,” he says.
What happened to the de-escalation zones?
Last year, Turkey, Iran and Russia agreed to create four de-escalation zones in Syria as part of the Astana peace process, named after the Kazakh capital where they began the talks.
The zones included opposition-controlled areas where it was agreed that hostilities including air raids will halt for a few months.
But earlier this year, Assad’s forces backed by Russian jets and Iranian militias took over three zones - Eastern Gouta, Homs and Daraa - in swift conquests.
The rebel and opposition fighters, their families and thousands of refugees from these areas were evacuated to Idlib, turning the area into the last opposition stronghold.
“It’s a fight to the end for many of the fighters,” an opposition activist tells TRT World. “There’s no other place to go, no Idlib, after this. We are not going anywhere from here.”
Majority of the opposition fighters are not in favour of any compromise with the regime, he says. “Assad hasn’t respected ceasefire agreements. His forces have bombed homes, schools and hospitals. He can’t be trusted."
More than half of Syria’s 22 million population has been displaced in the war. More than 6 million have fled the country with 3 million of them forced to take refuge in neighbouring Turkey.
The conflict has become complex with Russia mixing up the presence of about 10,000 Al Qaeda linked militants with moderate armed rebels and a large number of ordinary Syrians who oppose the Assad regime through peaceful means.
The conflict-monitoring International Crisis Group says Ankara is trying to separate militants from moderate rebels who could be persuaded to work toward a peace deal.
Idlib is situated near Turkey’s border and it is from here that all the relief and aid efforts are being directed. The Crisis Group says Ankara, which recently listed Hayat Tahrir al Sham as a terrorist group, should be given more time to cultivate hope among the opposition fighters.
“I’m not making any predictions but that’s what we want,” says Joost Hiltermann, Programme Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.
Russia has come out strongly in favour of an assault with its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov calling the rebel fighters a “festering abscess” that needed to be removed.
Rebels in Idlib, it says, have used drones to attack Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in Latakia governorate.
Joost says while the Russian claim of drone attacks might be correct, Moscow is just using it as an excuse to push a military invasion and help Assad gain control of Idlib.
“Turkey has observation posts there. It can play a role in limiting or preventing these drone attacks,” he says.
The chemical weapons threat
Russia and the Assad regime have been invoking the fear of chemical attacks, pinning the blame of any such eventuality on the rebels.
But Paul F Walker, a leading chemical weapons expert, says most of the attacks can be traced back to the Syrian regime.
“All the attacks we have seen have come from the air. So chemical weapons have been dropped in barrel bombs from helicopters or aircraft. And rebel forces don't have any of those,” he says.
Assad’s regime has hit civilian areas and opposition strongholds more than 100 times with different chemical weapons, sometimes involving lethal sarin and mustard gas, which disfigures skin and leaves lungs damaged permanently.
Though the regime denies using chemical weapons, no one buys Assad’s explanation — especially not the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Only two instances where the mustard agent was fired through artillery shells have been traced back to Daesh, he says.
The United States has warned Assad and its allies. The US, France and Britain have retaliated against regime installations when chemical weapons were used in past.
“There could be immense political implications for backers of the Syrian regime - Iran and Russia - if the chemical weapons are used again.”
With Syria’s economy and infrastructure devastated, which would cost more than $240 billion to repair, Moscow is relying on the European countries to foot the bill when the war ends.
“Everyone wants to help reconstruct after a war that has been so devastating but nobody would want Bashar Al Assad overseeing this,” says Walker.
The UN estimates that 800,000 people would be in desperate need of assistance if a full-fledged attack is launched on Idlib, says NRC’s Egeland.
“We don’t have money for this. The Idlib response plan has been launched and it cost $311 million.”
Egeland says people will try to move to different areas including the Turkish-controlled Syrian region of Afrin and around the Turkish observation posts within Idlib.
“But I don’t accept that there has to be a countdown to the battle. This battle should be prevented.”
“This could be the worst battle, worst atrocity of the seven-year war.”