ISTANBUL — As the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) met Nov. 11 in the opposition-held northern Syrian city of Azaz and fighters in Idlib prepared for an expected attack, a conference somewhat perplexingly on the return of refugees to the country still at war kicked off in Damascus.
Iran, China, Lebanon and Oman all took part in the Russian-planned conference in the Syrian capital. The United Arab Emirates, which had initially said it would attend, did not. The European Union refused, noting that the “limited returns that have taken place” have faced “forced conscription, indiscriminate detention, forced disappearances, torture, physical and sexual violence” and other issues.
SOC President Nasr al-Hariri told this journalist during a Nov. 2 interview at the opposition body’s Istanbul headquarters that the latest attacks by Russia strongly hint at an imminent larger attack on the northwestern province of Idlib. He noted that the armed opposition groups still fighting on the ground are being restructured to prepare for such an eventuality.
Direct Russian military intervention has been key to keeping Damascus in control since September 2015. Earlier that year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad publicly stated that a lack of manpower meant he would have to give up some areas to the opposition to protect other key ones. The tide swiftly turned after Russia got involved.
Hariri claimed that “Russia is the main party responsible” for the failure of the political process and continuing violations on the ground in Syria and was using the conference to “manipulate” the prevailing narrative on what is happening inside the country.
“Recently they attacked a military training base of Failaq al-Sham, which is part of the Syrian National Army,” he noted. “Thirty-seven died and we have about 12 that disappeared and more than 100 were wounded.”
Hariri noted, “This headquarters was very close to the Syrian-Turkish border” and “many understood this as a political message to the SNA and Turkey regarding other spots of conflict — either Libya or Azerbaijan.”
On Nov. 13, there was reportedly a “sea-launched missile” strike near the central prison in Idlib.
Idlib currently has an estimated population of over four million. Over two million residents are IDPs from other areas of the country, including many from long-besieged and later evacuated suburbs of Damascus.
Both civilians and fighters that had been in besieged areas of opposition-held areas of the city of Aleppo were also transferred to Idlib in December 2016 as part of an agreement with the Syrian regime when it took over the area.
East of Idlib, other opposition-held areas are not subject to Russian bombing but do suffer from frequent attacks and a lack of security. Syrian Civil Defense member Ammar al-Selmo noted to Al-Monitor in Nov. 14 Whatsapp messages from inside Syria that the People's Protection Units (YPG) “sometimes attacks southern Afrin or the road that links Daret Ezza in the western part of Aleppo province with Afrin,” noting that the forces attack “cars linked to the SNA or Turkish points and sometimes civilians passing on the roads. Also, [improvised explosive devices] and car bombs happen on a daily basis.”
The YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and Turkey. It is also the dominant faction of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which controls a large section of the northeastern part of the country.
The SOC, which is based in Istanbul, has long-standing friction with the SDF and YPG. It is closely aligned with Turkey, and sees the SDF, which was the main on-the-ground partner for the United States in the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, as a terrorist group given its links to the PKK. The SDF and YPG, which in turn call Turkey a supporter of terrorism and all opposition fighters allied with it ''terrorists," have been excluded from most Syrian opposition forums.
One of Hariri's three vice presidents is the Kurdish co-founder of the Damascus Declaration and also of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a party that has attempted dialogue with the SDF. He is from Amude in territory now under control of the SDF.
Questioned about whether the forces that he mentioned were being restructured would include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham [HTS], the SOC president told Al-Monitor, “On the ground, some armed groups are forced to deal with military actors. They are facing a common enemy, the Syrian regime. When the Syrian regime attacks these areas, it does not focus on HTS. It ignores HTS and focuses its attacks on the moderate opposition. So this kind of indirect understanding with other groups is present.”
Hariri noted that the armed forces inside opposition-held areas had stopped receiving any funding except from Turkey years ago and that fighting off attacks by Russia, Syrian government forces and those of allied groups had become exceedingly difficult. Pragmatism was required to protect civilians as much as possible, he implied.
On whether HTS was involved in passing on information leading to the recent killing of several al-Qaeda leaders in Idlib, Hariri stressed, “We as the coalition and the Syrian interim government, [as well as] the Syrian National Army — we have helped a lot in providing information” about terrorist groups. He said of HTS, “I don’t have confirmed information. I have heard that they have helped in such targeting of terrorist fighters.”
“Our main goal is to get rid of terrorism and terrorists and we have adopted the strategy that was issued by the United Nations,” Hariri said. “We feel that terrorism cannot be confronted only by military tools. We [also] have to deal with the underlying causes of terrorism.”
As to what percentage of the country opposition forces currently control, Hariri put the figure at 11-12% in terms of territory, adding, "But if you look at the Syrian people, the majority of them are not with the Syrian regime.”
He stressed that there has been no progress in the political process. He cited as an example the Constitutional Committee, in which “after one year and two months of dialogue, with the regime there have been no results whatsoever.”
“Russia, as you know, is still counting on the military victory,” Hariri noted, “taking terrorism as a pretext to continue its military efforts.”