Day: September 15, 2017
I’ve been in Turkey the last few days, talking with Syrian opposition people (including civil society, the Syrian Interim Government and the Syrian Opposition Coalition) who live here, as well as Turks who worry about Syria. I was last in Istanbul and Gaziantep, the Turkish city closest to Aleppo that acts as a platform for the civilian Syrian opposition, two years ago, when the most of its exponents were upbeat about the prospects of evicting Bashar al Assad from the presidential palace, or at least wresting control of a good part of Syria from him.
Gone are those days. The sustained Russian air intervention that started in September 2105, coordinated with Iranian and Shia militia ground forces as well as the Syrian army, has wrested east Aleppo, some Damascus suburbs and other key areas from opposition military forces, while the Turks have taken a slice of Syria’s north and Kurdish and allied Arab forces have taken Manbij and moved southeast to take Raqqa from the Islamic State, the first provincial capital to fall to the opposition in 2013.
The only major population center in western “useful Syria” still in opposition hands is a good part of Idlib province, to which the Syrian government has shipped irreconcilable (both extremist and moderate) Syrians from all the territory it retakes. Idlib has also accumulated a large number of people displaced by fighting in Aleppo and other population centers, even while some of its native population has fled to Turkey. There are perhaps 1.2 million people in the province, including 300-400,000 displaced from other provinces.
Americans focus on Raqqa because that is where US forces are supporting the assault on the Islamic State, which is the main American priority. But for the Syrian opposition, Idlib has become by default the center of gravity of the conflict. The situation there is intricate: formed more or less in accordance with a Syrian decentralization law, something like 100 elected moderate opposition local administrative councils (and more at the village level) govern in places like Saraqib and Maarat al Numan, even as Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS, the current Al Qaeda front in Syria) has taken over Idlib city (and disbanded the local administrative council there), as well as much of the rest of the province.
The question is whether the remaining relatively democratic and free institutions can survive two possible future assaults: one might come from HTS to exert its control over the entire territory, though so far the jihadis have failed to be able to displace the civic opposition and they are not yet moving against major population centers other than Idlib city. Another possibility is an assault against HTS in Idlib by the internationals. Once the Islamic State has been ousted from Raqqa and the eastern city of Deir Azour, the American, Iranian, Russian, and Syrian government forces could pivot to Idlib, nominally seeking to obliterate HTS but likely doing in the moderate opposition at the same time, because Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus don’t distinguish much.
What could prevent an Idlib debacle and help the opposition institutions that have been painstakingly built, with a lot of US and European aid, survive? The proposition apparently on the table at the Iranian/Russian/Turkish meeting in Astana yesterday and today is some sort of joint action with Russian air support, either by the Turks or by the Turks in north Idlib and the Iranians in the south, to chase HTS from the province.*
The Turks are hesitating. The Euphrates Shield area they already control in the north along their border is costing a bundle and generating complaints from the Syrian opposition, which has been shut out of the Turkish-controlled area in favor of hand-picked Turkish proxies responsible for security, education, and religious affairs as well as Turkish-trained police. Turkey’s priority in Syria is doing in the Kurds and blocking them from controlling the entire northern border of Syria with Turkey, not helping the Syrian opposition.
If the Turks don’t act, Idlib could still fall eventually to the regime, with the help of Iran and Russia. That could precipitate a major slaughter, especially if the Turks continue to block the border at Bab al Hawa.
Even if the non-HTS local councils survive in Idlib and even if the Americans re-establish some sort of democratic institutions in Raqqa, the Syrian opposition has largely lost the military fight. But the war isn’t really over until there is peace, which is not yet on the horizon. The next phase will be less military and more political. The question is who will win that. More on that in the next post.
*PS: The decision at Astana was apparently to deploy observers, not forces, to the boundaries of Idlib’s non-regime controlled areas. Not clear how long that will take.
*PPS: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a different version of the agreement, which includes deployment of Turkish, Russian and Iranian forces inside Idlib. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.