Idlib: Before the Storm


Can Syria and its allies still be dissuaded from launching an offensive on Idlib? German minister of foreign affairs Heiko Maas met his Russian counterpart. Which has not made much of a difference.

A Syrian or Russian airstrike hit the town of Bidama in the western Idlib Governorate.
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During the offensive, rebel-held towns in the Idlib Governorate, such as Bidama, above, were again hit by Syrian and Russian airstrikes, the first series of airstrikes in the area since the ceasefire attempt from July 2017.

To date, the major offensive on Idlib has not yet been initiated. However, the threat is substantial, fostered by the Syrian regime’s troop movements and fuelled by aggressive rhetoric from Damascus as well as from Moscow. The past days have seen a dramatic increase in bombings. Many people were killed and tens of thousands have been forced to flee. Indeed: “It is about warding off the greatest danger,” foreign minister Heiko Maas emphasised in advance of his meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov this Friday in Berlin: “We all know what’s at stake.”

The scale of an offensive on Idlib would be enormous. More than 3 million people are located in the region in the northwest of Syria, 1.4 million of which are internally displaced persons. The United Nations have warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe of unknown dimensions in the war that has been raging since 2011.

“It is clear to us that Russia has the ability to influence the Syrian regime, and we are counting on it now being used,” most notably in order to prevent the use of chemical weapons, Maas said following the meeting with Lavrov. The Russian foreign minister, on his part, spoke of Russia’s role in “conducting an uncompromising war on terror” and underlined that civilians needed to be granted protection. Incidentally, he referred to the meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday. That suggests that real progress has yet to be made.

Less than one percent of those in Idlib expecting an attack are, according to a UN assessment, fighters. However, it is the fighters that feature almost exclusively in the international debate, more specifically the extremists amongst them, for instance the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group with ties to al-Qaeda. That is in no small part due to the Syrian regime’s wrong and since the start of the conflict continually repeated claim that the revolution is actually an attack launched by “terrorists”. To focus on extremist fighters alone means, in the case of Idlib, to prioritise the fight against some thousand jihadists over the fate of 3 million people. Another military escalation would, once again, force hundreds of thousands of people to flee towards Turkey – while the country has taken the decision that it will not open its borders for them.

The regime remains unforgiving

That means there is no more escape for people seeking to flee. This would prove fatal especially for the tens of thousands of activists who were unable to remain in other parts of Syria under regime control – and for those who were deported to Idlib. In the face of the merciless persecution of dissidents, they are right to fear for their lives: at no point in time has the regime demonstrated a conciliatory streak. None of the amnesties issued in Damascus in the past years have been implemented. The regime has, without restraint, broken all assurances it made in localities in which surrenders were enforced – under the veil of “local negotiations”. The regime continues to arrest those who took on civilian duties under rebel control in Moadhamiya and other places in the Damascan suburbs of eastern Ghouta which were occupied during the past year; the regime arrests and makes disappear.

Due to the strong presence of extremist groups in Idlib, many states, including the United Kingdom, have already ceased their support of activists in Idlib - for fear that they could be accused of financing Islamists. And also perhaps driven by the hope that the increasingly precarious situation could be attributed to HTS and the group could thus be isolated. However, with that, precisely the civilian forces that can counteract further radicalisation are being denied support.

And even if a distancing of civilians and moderate groups from the extremist forces was achievable: What would happen with the latter, Syrian extremist fighters as well as the considerable number of foreign fighters? Would they be declared outlaws - by countries that have abolished the death penalty and lay claim to constitutional procedures?

Up to now, none of the countries from which the tens of thousands of foreign fighters hail have considered taking them back and bringing them to trial. If it is unpopular to find a way forward for those in need of protection, that certainly holds true for those who are determined to force their concept of an Islamic way of life on the general Syrian population and thereby form part of the problem. None of the respective governments seek to assume their responsibility for them.

Only Assad is prepared to go all the way

Let it be supposed that the western states, Turkey and Russia could come to an agreement. An agreement to say that the priority in Idlib should be to combat extremist fighters. It would be questionable to what extent Russia would actually like to pursue such an undertaking. In Aleppo in 2016 and in the case of Ghouta in spring 2018, extremists served as a useful guise. The offers brought forward by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and western states to remove al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters from Aleppo or Ghouta were not even worthy of an answer from Russia.

At the same time, such an agreement would not mark a step towards a solution with the regime. The regime, throughout the entire conflict, has not been concerned with specific groups. Assad does not fight jihadists, but rather everyone who is not absolutely loyal – proven by his continued attacks on hospitals and schools. The regime has made sure to instil in its supporters the ultimate goal: to bring every inch of Syrian soil back under its control.

That is exactly what differentiates the Syrian regime from its supporters: Assad, driven by the obsession to emerge victorious from this conflict is the only one who, with all his power, strives for the recapture of Idlib. The regime’s allies, Russia and Iran, are far less interested in pursuing his agenda. It is obvious that the regime cannot achieve its goal without the Russian air force and militias recruited by Iran while they, for their part, would prefer to limit their commitment rather than expand it. That is due to domestic political reasons, financial ones.

Benefits of the dialogue with Russia

To capture Idlib promises to be decidedly more difficult and protracted than it was with Ghouta or Daraa. The rebels in Idlib are far better equipped. Mainly, however, they know that there will be no green buses from Idlib back to Idlib. “Of course many in Idlib would be willing to accept life under regime control. After years of conflict, they are exhausted and have lost hope. But many others know that they would stand no chance under the regime,” journalist Belal Kharbotly explains, himself having been deported from Ghouta. It seems just as clear that a massacre of the extent that would have to be expected in Idlib would be met with a completely different level of international outrage.

Against this backdrop, it seems sensible to continue the dialogue with Russia as the country could be the key force in averting an offensive. A risk would remain: On the one hand, the tenacious negotiations between Russia and Turkey give the impression that both parties are interested in delaying a conflict as well as a solution, all the while people in Idlib fear the worst, flee and die. On the other hand, because agreements with Putin are not always implemented by Assad.

While the regime is dependent on Moscow regarding its military successes, Assad has always understood how to keep his allies on tenterhooks. If they wish to retain the diplomatic importance they have gained with him, they cannot afford to simply drop him. The chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun in April 2017 is a fitting example: As soon as Russia displayed hesitancy in supporting the regime offensive in the north, it duped Russia with a fresh attack, just in time to coincide with the start of the international donor conference in Brussels.

Bombed into loyalty

It may seem cynical to mention a potential chemical attack as the only reason why western states could intervene by military means. For that implicitly suggests that the deployment of other, more deadly weapons has no consequences. It would be even more wrong to categorically exclude potential options at this point in time.

The discussion of to what extent the fate of Idlib can be negotiated independently from a peace process for Syria as a whole misses the fundamental problem: The Syrian regime is solely interested in the conquest of the country in its entirety. It refuses to consider relinquishing power and is just as unwilling to enter into a pragmatic agreement with opposition forces for certain areas. The regime does not plan to take back refugees but rather speculates on what Assad in one of his speeches described as a “healthier and more homogenous society”: decimated, but bombed into loyalty.

Assad’s plans for Idlib demonstrate once again that his interests and the interests of the west which aims to prevent further waves of refugees and to enable a return of displaced persons, are irreconcilable.

This would only then become a realistic option if the goal of the Geneva negotiations was achieved: a political transition, including Assad’s resignation. The west was never particularly willing to push for this demand with force. And in the past years, that has become rather worse than better. Syrian activist Marcelle Shehwaro got to the heart of it at an event in Beirut: “Our problem is that our enemies have always been far more determined than our friends.”


This article was first published in German by the online portal of Die Zeit. Translated from the German by Christine F. G. Kollmar.