Jomana Qaddour | Doctoral student at Georgetown University Law Center and cofounder of Syria Relief and Development
Since the rise to power in Idlib of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qa‘eda affiliate in Syria) in January 2019, the ability of the armed opposition to present an alternative force, like civil society’s ability to mobilize against the group, has been severely weakened. The continuous bombardment by Syrian regime and Russian forces of Idlib since last April, despite the Sochi deescalation agreement, has left the armed opposition scrambling to survive, further disabling it from focusing its efforts on weakening Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Such a move seems impossible now, especially without serious assistance from Turkey. Unless a ceasefire is immediately honored by the regime and Russia, the challenge to push back militarily and socially against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham will be insurmountable. Precedent reveals that the regime does not honor ceasefires. The result of ongoing talks between Russia, Turkey, and the United States are not public and it is unclear just how far a now-emboldened regime will continue to press northward before it is forced to respect any temporary ceasefire.
The recent escalation does not bode well for the future of the political track either. Syrians opposed to the regime are rightfully skeptical that assembling a constitutional committee would yield any concession from the regime while it bombs the last opposition stronghold into submission. Furthermore, the scale of humanitarian devastation surpasses everything Syria has seen so far. Since April, there have been 600,000 internally displaced persons. No humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations, are financially or logistically prepared to absorb the devastation to come as civilians scramble northward. In five months scarce housing has quadrupled in price, costing approximately $400 a month for an apartment. As a result, many are living under trees in the summer heat. More than 40 health facilities, including my organization’s hospital in Haas, have been destroyed, as well as 50 schools, 29 water networks, and seventeen entire villages. Potable water and sanitation facilities are scant and disease is rampant.
Subhi Hadidi | Syrian literary critic, commentator, and translator
What surprised me was not that the incursion by regime forces took place, but that it took three months to reach Khan Sheikhoun and required the direct intervention of Russian mercenaries, Hezbollah, and various Shi‘a militias.
Involving Iran in the offensive, which Moscow was apparently obliged to do in order to change the situation on the battlefield, will partially reintegrate the Revolutionary Guards into the Idlib equilibrium, contradicting the line agreed upon in the United States-Israel-Russia security meeting held in Jerusalem last June. This will also enhance the position of the Iranian-backed Maher al-Assad and the Fourth Division he leads with respect to the Russian-backed Suheil al-Hassan and his Tiger Forces, something that does not make Moscow happy.
Given that most of the regime gains were achieved through a series of withdrawals on the part of the rebels, the battles lying ahead over major cities such as Jisr al-Shoughour, Ma‘rat al-Na‘man, Saraqeb, Ariha, and Kafr Nabl, will prove far more complicated. This means the Kremlin will need to strike several more deals with Ankara, as appeared to have taken place during the visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow this week. As for Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, he might well continue to betray the real fighters on the fronts, or remain idle behind his Samson Option of finally launching the Great Battle of the Coast against Qardaha, Hmeimim, Jableh, and Latakia!
Ibrahim Hamidi | Senior diplomatic editor covering Syrian affairs at the Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper in London
The game is bigger than Idlib. In the “northern triangle” that includes Idlib and that links Rural Aleppo, Rural Latakia, and Rural Hama Governorates, several factors that did not exist in the other areas of deescalation are present. There is strategic depth and supply lines because of Turkey, unlike the situation with the Ghouta around Damascus. Moreover, Turkey has not completely abandoned the opposition, as did the countries that supported the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army.
There are also ideological ties between opposition Islamist factions and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. The northern triangle differs as well from others in the sense that it is geographically close to the Russian bases in Latakia and Tartous, as well as near to the sectarian heartland of the regime. This triangle is home to 3 million people, including thousands of fighters who have fled from other areas. Moderates, Salafis, and other militants, including several thousand foreign fighters belonging to Al-Qa‘eda designated by United Nations Security Council resolutions as “terrorists” live in the area. Some have threatened to carry out terrorist operations against the United States and Western targets.
These factors, and others, have made the fate of Idlib an issue of concern to Turkey, Russia, the United States, and Iran. Idlib’s fate is also linked to regional and international understandings and conflicts. Arrangements in northwestern Syria depend on the future of northeastern Syria. An understanding between the United States and Turkey over the fate of the Kurds east of the Euphrates will reflect on Turkey’s and Russia’s understanding over Idlib.
Idlib’s fate is also linked to the development of relations between Moscow and Ankara and to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia and its impact on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and relations between Washington and Ankara. The fate of the nuclear deal with Iran and its impact on Tehran’s involvement in a battle that displeases Ankara cannot be forgotten, as Iran does not want to alienate Turkey, which helps it to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran. The game is bigger than Idlib.
Mohanad Hage Ali | Communications director and fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, author of Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam: Hizbullah’s Institutional Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)
Given that the Syrian-Russian advances are not coordinated with Turkey, Ankara will have to repel the advances, either by thrusting into the battle Syrian opposition forces gathered in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army or by delivering advanced weaponry to the Syrian opposition. For Turkey, an advance by Syrian regime forces could potentially trigger a catastrophic new wave of Syrian refugees heading into Turkish territory, as Idlib Governorate is home to more that 3 million people, most of whom are internally displaced. Many tens of thousands of these internally displaced relocated to Idlib thanks to evacuation deals concluded between the Syrian regime and its allies, on the one hand, and Syrian opposition forces, on the other, in the Damascus and Aleppo Governorates. Where would these refugees go? The Turkish safe zone in northern Syria, which was established after the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch Operations, is overcrowded. The fact that the Syrian regime is encroaching upon the opposition-held north decreases Turkey’s ability to expand the safe zone. That is why greater Turkish involvement may be needed to halt the regime’s advance.