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What about Idlib?

Karin Leukefeld, international observer, Germany

Idlib is bleeding. Radical Islamists, who lost the war in Syria, are trying to retain power in the country’s north-western province at the cost of civilian lives. In fact, this is the final obstacle to peace in the country…

Three years ago, speaking at the American Institute of the Middle East, US special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State (terrorist organization banned in Russia) Brett Mcgurk said: “Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda (terrorist organization banned in Russia) safe haven. It borders with Turkey and it is Ankara whom we should talk to about it.”

Mcgurk was as much right as he cut corners: he is perfectly aware how the Islamists found themselves in Idlib. It all began in 2011 with the attacks of al-Qaeda terrorists on the Syrian government forces that held the line in the northern part of the province next to Jisr ash-Shugur. The Syrian-Turkish border existed then on paper alone. In fact, it had many “holes” and resembled a block of Swiss cheese. Uncontrolled crossing points were a common thing here. The largest was located near the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. Over time, it turned into a real transit camp, from which militants from all over the world penetrated into Syria. Weapons were supplied via the ports of the Turkish Hatay Province.

The US joined the game a little later, in 2012. It happened under the CIA operation Timber Sycamore. Supported by the special services of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Jordan, the Americans illegally sent military instructors, equipment, and money to Syria. In 2013, Washington, accommodating, among other things, the wishes of Tel Aviv, gave the go-ahead to weapon supplies to several thousand Islamic militants. They were ordered to overthrow the Syrian government.

The Western media called the militants “rebels”, although everyone understood that they were abandoned villains planning to turn Syria into a theocratic state. They set up their training camp south of Idlib, between Mount Zāwiya and the small town of Maarrat al-Nu’man. From there, the jihadists penetrated into other parts of Syria.

In 2014 and 2015, the Islamists, who had the most state-of-the-art weapons including anti-tank missile systems, pursued a hard-fought offensive on the province capital – the city of Idlib, which was then controlled by the Syrian government army. But Idlib fell. The Syrian troops sustained losses and retreated far inland. By the way, at that very moment Damascus sought military help from Russia.

After the fall of the province’s major city, thousands of militants of the Islamist “Army of Conquest” aided by Turkey and the Gulf countries advanced further, to Aleppo, but were stopped by the Syrian army at great sacrifice of life. The turning point of the war occurred in late 2016 with the complete liberation of Aleppo from armed gangs. The scattered militias made their way back to Idlib: first from eastern Aleppo, then from the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta, later from Yarmouk and Al-Hajar al-Aswad located further south, and finally from Daraa and Quneitra. All the survivors flocked to Idlib – both groups of foreign mercenaries and diverse local jihadists from the ranks of al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Meanwhile, a new bloody drama was unfolding in Idlib – a struggle for power between various gangs. The “moderate Syrian opposition”, closely connected with Turkey and the Gulf countries, started creating its own political structures – the “Salvation Government”, security services, police. The “moderate” ones decided to establish a new command system to dismember the country and cut off Idlib from Syria in the future.  In turn, Jabhat al-Nusra jihadists, renamed by that time “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS, banned in Russia), suggested that the new territory be under their patronage. Nobody wanted to share power. Quite a natural thing, because at stake there was money, weapons, assistance from the allies, control over pivotal routes and border crossing points. By the beginning of 2019, HTS militants managed to resolve the conflict for their own benefit.

The USA, Great Britain and Germany took a wait-and-see approach. As for Syria itself, its government troops had planned a military operation to liberate Idlib since the summer of 2018, but calls coming from the West “to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe” forced Assad to postpone the offensive. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made clear what Europe really feared. Many militants in Idlib have European countries’ citizenship. In case of a military operation, they would flee to national headquarters and pose a threat to the entire continent. In this context, Le Drian confirmed Mcgurk’s words about Idlib’s becoming a haven for al-Qaeda’s international forces.

And here one has to get back to Turkey again. In September 2018, an agreement was reached within the Astana process on a ceasefire in Idlib and the creation of a twenty-kilometer de-escalation zone. The Russian military police prepared humanitarian corridors for civilians wishing to leave the province. Under Turkish control all the heavy weapons had to be taken away from this area.

Turkey had six months to fulfill its part of the agreement. But things turned out in a different way. Literally before Turkish military’s very eyes did the HTS militants stuff the buffer zone with weapons and strengthen their position there. They increased the number of attacks across the dividing line, including those on populated localities. The Russian Khmeimim military base in Latakia suffered drone attacks. In the end, jihadists attacked the stronghold of the Turkish army itself, making the latter ask for Russian aircraft assistance. In other words, those backing the militants in Idlib lost control over them and ought to pay for it. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice from Goethe’s ballad, the Turkish side had to admit the following: “Wrong I was in calling spirits, I avow, for I find them galling, cannot rule them now.”

The problem of Idlib obviously requires an urgent solution. Meanwhile, the situation is heating up. Both sides are already preparing for an offensive: the Syrian army – against the militants who took refuge in Idlib, and the militants – against the government troops’ positions. A compromise can be found only by means of joint actions by the Astana process guarantors with the involvement of those Western countries whose citizens are fighting in Syria on the side of jihadists. But will such a huge number of players have enough political will to reach an understanding?

As long as the issue remains open, Idlib will maintain its status of a new haven for terrorists, and Syria will keep being in a state of war.