The Takeaway: Are Syria, Turkey and HTS preparing for final battle in Idlib?

The last stronghold of armed groups anticipates a showdown with Russian-backed Syrian forces, as Idlib’s citizens pay a terrible price; my podcast conversation with Sultan Al-Qassemi on Arab art!

al-monitor  Photo by IBRAHIM YASOUF/AFP via Getty Images.

Jul 29, 2020

Turkey-Syria: Countdown to conflict or compromise in Idlib?

Turkish and Syrian forces continue to flow into Idlib, which is on edge anticipating a perhaps final battle for control of the opposition stronghold.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that nearly 5,000 Turkish military vehicles have entered the northern Syrian province since the Russia-Turkey cease-fire March 5.  This adds up to 8,325 military vehicles, 11,500 troops and 66 Turkish checkpoints since February. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has no easy out in Idlib, nonetheless considers his military forces in Syria, and his support for armed Syrian opposition groups, as leverage in shaping the Syrian endgame. While he may not want a fight, he has no plans to back down or withdraw.

Bad blood: The Syrian military, backed by Russia, launched an offensive in December 2019 to retake the province from armed opposition forces, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (“Liberation of the Levant,” or HTS), which the United States and the UN Security Council have designated as an al-Qaeda linked terrorist group. HTS has an estimated 12,00-15,000 fighters. The Syrian military attacked Turkish outposts as part of the assault, killing Turkish soldiers and sparking direct Turkish-Syrian military confrontations in January-February 2020, with casualties on both sides.

Shaky cease-fire: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but is also allied with Turkey and Iran in Syria (as part of the so-called Astana Group), brokered a cease-fire with Erdogan on March 5. Despite the continued military buildup by Turkey and Syria in Idlib, the cease-fire has mostly held.

Take the highways: Syrian opposition sources are anticipating that as a compromise, Turkey may allow Russian control or oversight of two vital highways (M4 and M5), which run through Idlib and are lifelines for Assad’s government and military, to reach the rest of the country, Fehim Tastekin reports. Syria took control of the M5 this year, and joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the M4 were part of the March 5 cease-fire deal. HTS is unlikely to go along with this deal, as it would lose control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Turkey, which rakes in $4 million per month.

Turkey attempts HTS makeover: Turkey has been trying to separate moderate elements in HTS and recast the armed groups there into a more moderate and amenable force under its control. The results are so far mixed. Ankara is HTS’ only lifeline as the gang faces its Alamo in Idlib. Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, HTS’ leader, has been making the right noises as part of a PR campaign to cast himself as a viable “opposition” figure, rather than the diehard jihadi terrorist he is. His attempts to find some middle ground are being challenged by even more radical factions in Idlib.

Syria could lose: “Any military operation in Idlib carries many risks for the Assad regime and its allies and could have unpredictable consequences — including the potential for regime forces to end up on the losing side,” writes Kirill Semenov. “Even the limited participation of the Turkish army in supporting the opposition can radically change the balance of power and turn the Syrian government army from an attacking party to a defensive one.”

Our take: Erdogan’s Syria quagmire has no easy answers. He has opened two fronts: in Idlib, and via Turkey’s occupation of the northeast, which puts him at odds with Syrian Kurdish groups. He is also hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, which are only going home once Syria is settled. That said, if Turkey goes in heavy, Syria, and by extension Russia, could be bogged down or set back. Fehim Tastekin concludes, “In sum, Turkey could give some concessions in Idlib in a bid to ease the pressure of its commitment to eliminate terrorist groups and, furthermore, to soften Russia in Libya amid a standoff over the key cities of Sirte and al-Jufra. Such concessions, however, do not mean that Turkey would forfeit the leverage of its military presence on the ground and clout over militia forces. A cycle in which conflict dictates collaboration with Russia but collaboration fails to avert conflict appears bound to continue.”

Syria: Idlib's citizens paying too high a price

The gamesmanship among Syria, Russia, Turkey, HTS and others over what might be the final assault often takes little account of the people of Idlib, whose situation veers from bad to worse to unbearable.

No "salvation" for Idlib: Idlib province had 1.5 million residents in 2011, before the anti-government protests began. By 2014, what is now HTS emerged as the dominant power after infighting among the armed resistance groups there. Forcible relocations and displacements as a result of fighting elsewhere in Syria led to at least 600,000 more people migrating to Idlib. The Syrian military offensive since December 2019 in Aleppo and Idlib regions displaced a million more. The so-called "salvation government" that has ruled Idlib since 2017 governs by fear and radical, if often arbitrary, imposition of Islamic law, and shakedowns and abuse by armed gangs.

Crimes against humanity: The Syrian conflict has been a litany of horrors for citizens in Idlib. Between November and June,  according to the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, there were “17 attacks impacting medical facilities; 14 attacks impacting schools; 9 attacks impacting markets and 12 other attacks impacting homes, marked by war crimes. They foreseeably led to massive displacement, as civilians had no choice but to flee, and may amount to crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, the UN-designated terrorist organization HTS also committed war crimes outside the immediate context of hostilities, while Government forces engaged in unlawful pillaging.”

Devastating scenariosSultan Al-Kanj reports from Syria that the Response Coordination Group in Syria issued a warning July 15 in the wake of an increase in the number of cases in Idlib and the northern countryside of Aleppo. “The absence of urgent humanitarian measures in the northern Aleppo countryside and northwestern Syria would lead to devastating scenarios,” the group said in a statement.

Crippling shortages: Hospitals still functioning in Idlib “face a crippling lack of resources,” writes Elizabeth Hagedorn. “Idlib has fewer than 300 intensive care unit beds and a limited number of ventilators, most of which are currently in use, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations. Hospitals must also contend with a dangerous shortage of oxygen concentrators and cylinders.”

Read more:  Elizabeth reports here on the latest Caesar Act sanctions on Syria.

UAE/Culture: Sultan Al-Qassemi: Arab women artists not getting enough credit

Emirati columnist and researcher Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, has put down a marker: Women artists will be 50% of any show at Barjeel galleries. 

Qassemi, who is the guest on this week’s episode of Al-Monitor’s "On the Middle East" podcast, is putting the lie to the old canard that there are either not enough good women artists, or that women’s art isn’t good enough.

Inexcusable: “There is no excuse not to showcase works by women artists. Women have gotten the short end of the stick … and this is not just in the Arab world, this is even in America. The American museums are guilty of showing much more work by males, as though male artists are better. It is inexcusable,” Qassemi said.

Listen here to the podcast, where we discuss trends in contemporary Arab art, including the role of women; influences on Iraqi, Palestinian, and Arab Gulf art; his cultural majlis; and more.

In case you missed it: Israeli think tank offers plan to break Iran's grip on Syria

A new study by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security argues for using sanctions to create incentives for Putin and Assad to loosen Iran’s grip in Syria. The catch is that the plan calls for accepting that Assad is likely to stay in power.

“Neither Syria nor Russia will break openly and fully with Iran, certainly not at this stage,” Eran Lerman, Aiman Mansour and Micky Aharonson write. “However, with a well-designed mix of pressures and inducements, both he [Assad] and Putin may be persuaded not to take unnecessarily active risks in support of Iranian ambitions to use Syria as a base of attack against Israel. … This would require (through congressional action) a more purposeful application of the current sanctions on Syria. For example, wavers could enable Russia to invest in Syrian sectors such as agriculture and pharmaceutics which lie outside the present system of sanctions.”

You can read the full report here.

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