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The inevitable battle in Syria’s Idlib

Jul 17,2019 - Last updated at Jul 17,2019

The struggle for Syria is far from over.  Damascus has control of 65 per cent of the country's territory and intends to regain the rest. Idlib province, about 9 per cent, in the northwest is ruled by Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham while vast swathes of desert, the city of Raqqa and Syria's main oil fields in the northeast, 26 per cent, remain in the hands of the US-sponsored Kurds. 

In his book “The Struggle for Syria”, published in 1965, Patrick Seale described the 1945-58 struggle among regional and foreign powers seeking to dominate this central and strategic Arab country.    Regional actors and external powers continued to vie for political influence during the Cold War but the 2011 eruption of civil conflict followed by destructive proxy interventions has transformed the protracted struggle into a brutal war for Syria's very existence as a country.

The inevitable battle in Idlib between Syria's army and Tahrir Al Sham and its allies has escalated in recent weeks because the "de-confliction" deal agreed last September by Russia and Turkey has never been implemented. This deal involved a ceasefire, the removal of heavy weapons and the withdrawal of radical fighters from a 10-15 kilometre-wide buffer zone on the edge of Idlib. Ankara was also meant to monitor implementation as well as separate radical fighters from Turkish-supported  "rebels".  

Instead of abiding by the deal, Tahrir Al Sham and its allies not only remained in the buffer zone but also carried out attacks on the Syrian army and civilian areas outside Idlib.  Having postponed an all-out offensive against Idlib due to the  "de-confliction" deal, the undermanned and overstretched Syrian army joined battle, with limited air support from Damascus ally, Russia. Lebanon's Hizbollah and pro-Iranian Shiite paramilitary units which have bolstered the army during fighting elsewhere in Syria have, mistakenly, remained on the sidelines.

They claim they want to focus on Daesh remnants in the east on the Iraqi border and in the west along the Lebanese border. 

Their inaction contrasts sharply with Ankara's engagement. Turkey responded to Syrian army action by pouring arms into Idlib and ordering its surrogate Free Syrian Army/National Liberation Front to fight alongside Tahrir Al Sham.  Villages, countryside and strategic locations on Idlib's margins have become battlegrounds with scores of fighters on both sides killed and wounded, nearly 700 civilians slain and more than 300,000 driven from their homes. The result has been a blood-soaked stalemate. 

Meanwhile there is a politico-military stalemate in the northeast which is dominated by US-backed Kurds and where the Syrian army, Iranian paramilitaries and Russia's air force remain disengaged.  US President Donald Trump has declared his intention to pull out US special forces and has received pledges from Britain and France to deploy "penny packets" of troops to replace some of the 2,000 US soldiers who go home. The Trump administration is determined to maintain a military presence in the northeast to prevent Turkey from attacking Washington's Kurdish allies and block the region's return to government control.

On the political front there has been a stalemate because the UN-backed peace plan put forward on June 30, 2012, was overtaken by war before it was adopted. This plan calls for a nationwide ceasefire, creation of a transitional administration, a new constitution and free and fair elections.  In the absence of a ceasefire and the government's refusal to cede power to a transitional body, the UN has focused on forming a committee to draft a constitution. 

However, for many months the government and the opposition have squabbled over whether the constitution should be an amended version of the document adopted in February 2012 or a new document. Until last week they also disputed composition of a constitutional committee but it appears there has been progress on membership. This does not mean, however, other issues can be easily and quickly resolved.

Even if the committee is formed and meets in early September, as Al Watan, a pro-government newspaper, predicts, this is putting the cart before the horse.  A ceasefire and an end to the division of the country have to be given priority.

Idlib cannot be left as an Al Qaeda base in north-western Syria.  The campaign to wrest Idlib from Al Qaeda is as essential as the war on Daesh.

The US has to be pressured to encourage its Kurdish allies in the northeast to agree to return the area to government control and to ensure that  Turkey does not invade Syria to crush the Syrian Kurds who, Ankara argues correctly, are allied to Turkey’s own Kurds.  Once Damascus is back in control along the border, Turkey will have no pretext to intervene.

The Trump administration falsely claims it must keep troops in Syria in order to exert leverage on Tehran to withdraw allied militiamen.  Such leverage is not necessary: Iran will pull out its fighters as soon as there is a ceasefire and the country is stabilised. 

The West insists it will not lift sanctions or provide rebuilding funds until Syria has carried out the terms of the outdated 2012 UN plan and a Western-approved government is installed in Damascus. This is a recipe for disaster because the current government has not been brought down by eight years of warfare and the army remains ready to defend it.    

Without a cessation of hostilities, the imposition of order and funds for reconstruction, a divided Syria could face continuing conflict, weakening the centre, represented by Damascus. Al Qaeda and other extremist actors would exploit the situation to expand from their base in Idlib while Daesh would regroup  and reemerge in the southeast of Syria. Northern Syria could be occupied by Turkey.

Other areas could slip out of government control and become fiefdoms ruled by warring radical warlords. 

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