Middle East Briefing N°213 – Silencing the Guns in Syria’s Idlib

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Principal Findings

What’s new? A Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive against rebel-held Idlib halted when Russia and Turkey negotiated a ceasefire in March. Turkey is sending reinforcements, signalling a military response to what it deems a national security threat. For now, this step may dissuade Russia from resuming the offensive, but the standoff appears untenable.

Why does it matter? Successive Russian-Turkish ceasefires in Idlib have collapsed over incompatible objectives, diverging interpretations and exclusion of the dominant rebel group, Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is UN-sanctioned and considered by Russia and others a terrorist organisation. A Russian-backed regime offensive to retake Idlib likely would result in humanitarian catastrophe.

What should be done? All actors should seek a more sustainable ceasefire – optimally including HTS, notwithstanding legitimate concerns about the group – that avoids the high military, political and humanitarian price of another offensive. Turkey should push HTS to continue distancing itself from transnational militancy and display greater tolerance for political and religious pluralism.

Executive Summary

Idlib, the last redoubt of Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, presents an international political conundrum that threatens to become a far greater humanitarian tragedy. A Russian-backed regime offensive has squeezed the rebels and displaced hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians, many crowding at the Turkish border. Turkish-Russian ceasefires have broken down time and again. The latest one, in March, while holding, bears all the flaws of its predecessors and may therefore also erode. To prevent further escalation, Moscow and Ankara should negotiate a more durable ceasefire that goes some way toward addressing both countries’ core concerns.

This step is all the more urgent because of the possibly imminent spread of COVID-19 in Idlib, which can be contained only through concerted international action at a time of relative calm. Idlib’s health care sector is all but destroyed as a result of the latest offensive, and an outbreak in this densely populated province could prove disastrous.

The failure of successive Russia-Turkey ceasefires, which were rooted in the trilateral Astana process launched with Iran in 2017, partly derives from the two sides’ contradictory interpretations of their commitments. Those differences in turn reflect the two countries’ opposing positions on Idlib’s future. The latest deal suspends but does not address the differences: while Turkey seeks to keep the Syrian regime out of Idlib pending a comprehensive political settlement of the Syrian conflict, Russia supports Damascus in the objective of reclaiming all the country’s territory – through negotiated deals if possible, or by force if the regime deems it necessary.

The Russian-Turkish deals also have recurrently stumbled over the question of Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group that dominates the area and that is not covered by the ceasefires. Russia has made clear that it expects Turkey to contain, police and eventually eliminate the group. But Ankara may have concluded that HTS is too strong and locally rooted to eradicate militarily without incurring a large human toll and sending a new wave of refugees to the Turkish border. It may also be disinclined to weaken the most powerful armed group in Idlib, thereby enabling a regime offensive. Russia has pointed in particular to HTS’s inclusion in the UN Security Council’s sanctions list of entities affiliated with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, as well as its alleged drone attacks on Russia’s Hmeimim air base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, as reasons for backing repeated offensives in Idlib. Because Russia enjoys the upper hand militarily over the rebels and could give the regime the kind of military support it would need to press for total victory, it has repeatedly been tempted to push in that direction.

Yet the political and military price of such an offensive for both Moscow and Damascus could be high. In addition to significantly worsening a humanitarian crisis, it could trigger even greater Turkish involvement: in the last three months, Ankara has stepped up both its own military role and its support for the main rebel alliance it backs in Idlib, the National Liberation Front, signalling its willingness to invest in Idlib in order to block regime advances and its ability to raise the cost of a new regime offensive. Developments earlier this year suggest that while the Syrian army, reorganised, re-equipped and backed by Russian airpower, in theory could overwhelm Idlib’s rebels, it would face real obstacles now that Turkey has deployed advanced drones and surface-to-air missiles. Ankara has qualitatively enhanced its Idlib intervention to preserve what it perceives as its interests and its ability to counterattack regime forces. Even if a regime offensive achieved significant territorial gains, it would therefore likely come at a high cost in manpower and materiel to forces already stretched thin.

Perhaps most important for Moscow, a Syrian offensive it backs could jeopardise its relationship with Ankara, particularly if regime forces push into densely populated areas such as Idlib city, fomenting mass civilian flight toward the Turkish border.

Moreover, a violent takeover of Idlib could bring new security challenges. A large portion of the thousands of fighters now bottled up there would likely flee; many might shift focus toward a broader asymmetric insurgency against regime forces, while some foreign jihadists might seek their way home, including to countries in the post-Soviet space.
There is an alternative scenario. Although it may not return Idlib to regime control in the short to medium term, it would both address Russia’s interest in suppressing rebel capacity to strike Russian military assets from Idlib and preserve Moscow’s strategically important relationship with Ankara. This scenario would require Moscow and Ankara to reach a more sustainable ceasefire and in particular address the role of HTS – which controls Idlib and therefore is pivotal to the success of any agreement – in a realistic and pragmatic way.

Since 2016, there have been signs that HTS is in the process of morphing from an al-Qaeda affiliate with a Salafi-jihadist orientation and membership (calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra) into a Syrian-dominated force that, despite having a hardline Islamist orientation, being regarded by many as repressive and intolerant and continuing to fight the Assad regime, is shedding its transnational goals in favour of a local statebuilding project. Whether HTS can transform itself into a primarily political actor that becomes part of Syria’s post-conflict order in Idlib is far from clear.

Yet signs of pragmatism within the group, even if driven by tactical considerations deriving from military pressure, are worth testing. A shift by HTS away from transnational militancy would benefit foreign governments concerned about attacks emanating from Idlib, while the province’s long-suffering inhabitants would gain were the group more tolerant of pluralism and dissent. HTS’s transformation, however genuine, is unlikely to convince Russia or the regime, but its recent evolution does suggest that it may be ready to enter transactional ceasefire agreements that might at least address Moscow’s concern about alleged attacks on Hmeimim air base.

Turkey, potentially together with other foreign powers, could set conditions for HTS that, if met by the group, could enable HTS’s inclusion in ceasefire agreements, even if indirectly.

The expected humanitarian catastrophe that would follow an all-out assault on Idlib, and the associated political costs, mean that exploring this alternative is the least bad option for all relevant actors. The additional threat that COVID-19 poses to Idlib’s over three million inhabitants, and in particular to the tens of thousands of displaced civilians living in makeshift camps, underlines the urgency for all parties to achieve a more durable ceasefire that could allow for a coordinated international humanitarian response.

Idlib/Istanbul/Brussels, 15 May 2020

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