Regime fighters are encroaching on a demilitarised zone agreed to by both Moscow and Ankara. By pressing ahead, civilians are put at risk and new refugee crisis will be in the making.
Russia’s strategy in Idlib province appears to be to bite off parts of the territory piece by piece, thereby increasing the flow of civilians to the Turkish border.
This process is happening in front of the entire international community, but nevertheless the Russian strategy appears to be paying off.
Since the Sochi deal between Turkey and Russia to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Idlib, Moscow has not ceased its own bombing of opposition groups and civilians in the region, let alone prevented the Assad regime from doing so.
Russia has always embarked on a policy of testing the limits in Idlib and has in the past reduced the intensity of its military operations after facing diplomatic pressure.
The Russian strategy in Idlib can be summarised as a long and slow game aimed at its eventual complete capture, but initially, just control of the planned demilitarised zone agreed to by Ankara and Moscow.
An initial escalation in the number of air strikes and artillery bombardments by Russian and Assad regime forces in November was followed by a ground offensive, which started on December 19.
Within four days, regime fighters managed to control the area surrounding the Turkish observation point in Surman.
These observation posts were intended to deter military clashes as agreed to under the Astana process, but the capture of the area around the Surman post means that regime and allied militants are now very close to the Turkish observation posts.
The most recent gains mean that the Assad regime now has control of more than a third of the demilitarised zone in Idlib.
Under the Sochi Memorandum, the demilitarised zone was meant to remain under the control of the Syrian opposition once heavy weaponry and radical elements were removed.
With the odds stacked against them, the Syrian opposition, as well as militant groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), have not been able to hold their positions in Idlib.
Air superiority and better equipment have allowed regime forces to encroach on the strategic town of Marat al Nouman in southern Idlib.
Since civilians, as well as opposition fighters, are fair game for the regime side, after the Sochi deal, up to 400,000 civilians have fled to the Turkish border area.
The region bordering Turkey in Syria’s Idlib is home to the largest concentration of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world and Turkish aid organisations are already providing a million IDPs with emergency aid.
Many of those in the Idlib area are Syrians who have been displaced from other cities targeted by regime air raids and atrocities, such as Aleppo, Ghouta, Homs, and Deraa. The makeshift camps of northern Idlib have become their last sanctuary within Syria, as they have for locals of Idlibs who come from territories captured by regime forces.
After the capture of Khan Sheikhoun by the regime, for example, over 330,000 civilians headed to the Turkish border.
If in the near future Marat al Nouman and Saraqib fall to the Assad regime, the only remaining urban settlement standing between regime forces and the Turkish border, will be Idlib itself. There is no doubt it will become the target of regime offensives, should the aforementioned be lost.
In such a circumstance, the UN expects a massive influx of refugees trying to enter Turkey, with estimates of around two million refugees.
One needs to be mindful that such an influx of refugees will be different from previous flows in Turkey. Turkish society will not welcome the new arrivals as they did before, and neither will these new refugees be as appreciative of Turkey as earlier refugees were.
Many will blame Turkey for not fulfilling its role as a guarantor of the Astana process.
In recent years, Turkey and Russia have helped bring about several de-escalationary measures and ceasefires affecting the Idlib region. However, what these arrangements mean on the ground is different to what is agreed on the negotiating table.
Declared ceasefires thus far have not resulted in an actual cessation of hostilities per se but instead a reduction in violence, as well as stopping offensives on the ground.
The ineffectual nature of the ceasefires enables the Assad regime and Moscow to facilitate a longer-term spiral of violence.
As things stand, a ceasefire is agreed to by Ankara and Moscow and violence slowly escalates to the point of a fully Russian backed ground operation. Negotiations then bring a pause to the fighting before resuming after sooner or later.
The Russian strategy for Idlib has become clear.
Moscow supports the Assad regime’s ‘every inch’ policy of recapturing all of the territories it lost to the opposition militarily.
That does not mean Moscow is unaware of the risks, which are the possibility of international outcry over the humanitarian situation in Idlib and the potential of an escalation with Turkey. Russia also does not want to outrage Europeans by contributing to a massive flow of refugees into the EU.
For these reasons and others, Moscow needs to find a balance between its military goals and the expected reaction from the international community.
The Russian strategy for Idlib seems to be to portion its Idlib operation over time and to impose facts on the ground step by step.
Moscow’s reasoning is as follows: That while hundreds of thousands of civilians heading to the Turkish border in a week may result in international fury, the same over a period of months may not.
The end outcome may not change but the reluctance of the Europeans to act on Idlib and international disinterest over the plight of Syrians will allow Moscow to achieve its military goal.
Every day this strategy continues torpedoes the hopes of a political settlement and brings closer a humanitarian catastrophe that will force millions to flee.
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