The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey in Idlib, the last Anti-Assad rebel-held enclave in Syria, came too late for Sanaa. Her three-year-old son Ahmad had frozen to death a few days before, unable to survive the family’s escape from the Syrian regime and Russia’s bombs in the bitter cold. The family had taken shelter in a flimsy tent in an overcrowded camp which did not provide even basic amenities such as warm quilts and a heater. Ahmad was the most vulnerable and he succumbed.
“That night was so cold, he turned blue. I was so afraid, I didn’t know what to do,” the grieving mother told Inside Arabia via WhatsApp. “I screamed and cried, but that was never going to bring him alive. We buried him in the camp before noon.”
At least a million people were forced to run, half of them children, as the Assad regime and Russia intensified their offensive in December and indiscriminately rained fire on already displaced Syrians.
At least a million people were forced to run, half of them children, as the Assad regime and Russia intensified their offensive in December 2019 and indiscriminately rained fire on already displaced Syrians. During the course of the war, at least two million anti-Assad Syrians — civilians, jihadists, and rebels — moved to the province of Idlib and Aleppo countryside. They had lost their cities to the forces of the Syrian regime but had hoped that Putin would hold back Assad from attacking the last rebel bastion, not out of compassion but to appear statesmanlike to the international community. That was not to be.
As it stands, 3.5 million Syrians are now shoved in the Idlib and Aleppo countryside, the majority of whom were bussed there with the assurance that it was a de-escalation zone for those opposed to Assad.
As the death toll rose, humanitarian workers warned of a catastrophe and Turkey deployed its military might to push back the forces of the Assad regime, Putin agreed to sign a ceasefire. It worked as a face-saver for both sides. Turkey can say it has put a stop to the regime’s offensive that was threatening to send hundreds of thousands or even millions of refugees over the border. And Russia had enabled Assad’s troops to consolidate their recent advances and secure the control of the supply lines of the M4 and M5 highways which connect the major cities in the country.
But the human tragedy of the millions trapped inside is far from over. The ceasefire has held thus far and brought temporary relief and yet few believe it would last.
Ahmad, a resident of Dart Izza in the west of Aleppo, had fled with this family to Jarablus – a city on the western bank of the river Euphrates and under the control of Turkey-backed anti-Assad Syrian rebels. The ceasefire allowed Ahmed to return to wrap up some urgent work but not for long. Ahmad said he had no doubt Assad would attack again and use the presence of jihadist fighters of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – a former Al Qaeda affiliate, to justify it.
Ahmad’s family is still in Jarablus and intends on being there until a final political resolution is agreed to by all sides. “HTS is a terrorist group and we are not comfortable with them and their checkpoints all around,” Ahmed told Inside Arabia. “But the regime just uses them as an excuse to bomb us.”
According to the 2018 Sochi agreement, Turkey was meant to contain the HTS in Idlib and Russia agreed to ensure the regime did not attack. However, neither side was serious about implementing it.
According to the 2018 Sochi agreement, Turkey was meant to contain the HTS in Idlib and Russia agreed to ensure the regime did not attack. However, the agreement was dead from the beginning as neither side was serious about implementing it. Turkey succeeded in gathering disparate rebel groups under one umbrella called the National Liberation Front or the NLF, while barring HTS.
A western diplomat recounted his meeting with the Russian ambassador to Syria on the condition of anonymity. “The Russian ambassador told me the Turks could either not contain HTS or they didn’t want to, but they had more than a year to work it out. We can’t stop Assad forever,” the diplomat told Inside Arabia.
Yahya al-Aridi, the spokesperson of the Syrian opposition’s political negotiations committee, said that even the opposition was perplexed at Turkey dragging its feet on HTS. “HTS is poisonous. They are creating a pretext for the regime to wage such an attack,” Aridi said. “We don’t have answers why Turkey is not stopping them. We asked the Turks several times, but they didn’t offer a clear response.”
Syria and Russia have effectively used Turkish failure to rein in HTS as a reason to repeatedly attack Idlib, ostensibly to get rid of the jihadists but in reality to take over the region. They bombed schools and hospitals to serve a warning to the civilians that they could either choose death or switch sides and accept Assad as the winner of the war and their president.
Syria and Russia have effectively used Turkish failure to rein in HTS as a reason to repeatedly attack Idlib, ostensibly to get rid of the jihadists but in reality to take over the region.
The western diplomat told Inside Arabia that during his visit to Damascus mid-March he found the officials of the Assad regime upbeat after the recent gains in Idlib and committed to pushing forth when the time is right. “Assad doesn’t care about winning Idlib because he is a nationalist but because he can use it to say he is fighting terrorists to shore up support in the rest of the country,” he added.
However, much is at risk for Russia if Assad moves forward. Erdogan’s determination to deploy the Turkish army – the second largest in NATO – to halt Assad could lead to a confrontation between Turkey and Russia, not an outcome either Erdogan or Putin desire.
Russia is now trying to bring its warring allies, Turkey and Syria, to the negotiating table. On the day the ceasefire was signed, Assad hinted at wanting to improve relations with Turkey in an interview with Russian TV. At Russia’s insistence, talks of reactivating the Adana Agreement have picked up. The original Adana Agreement in 1998 put an end to the use by the PKK, the anti-Ankara Kurdish guerrilla force, of Syrian territory as a base.
In return for improved ties and trade, the Syrian regime of former president Hafez al-Assad moved against the PKK, and, crucially, gave the right to Turkey to “harry and pursue” PKK elements into Syrian territory.
In return for improved ties and trade, the Syrian regime of former president Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar) moved against the PKK, expelled its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and, crucially, gave the right to Turkey to “harry and pursue” PKK elements into Syrian territory if needed, up to 5 km deep. It was deactivated after Turkey started to support Syrian rebels. But the regime has recently offered to reactivate it if the Turks offered their support to the regime instead of the rebels in Idlib—a proposal antithetical to Turkey’s policy thus far.
However, the killing of two Turkish soldiers in Idlib on March 19 could prove to be a game changer. Turkey’s defense ministry said that “radical groups in northwestern Syria’s Idlib de-escalation zone” were behind the killings but didn’t name the group. If the party responsible turns out to be HTS, Turkey may change its attitude towards the group and finally kick it out. That in turn would deny Assad the excuse to keep attacking the civilians in Idlib.
But if HTS was not responsible for the killing of the Turkish soldiers and the situation remains the same, another offensive on Idlib is only a matter of time. Russia will take turns in backing either ally just to keep it short of an all-out war with Turkey but that does not guarantee peace to the people of Idlib.