Conflict Politics

To every party to the Syrian conflict, Idlib means everything

Syrian regime forces are beefing up preparations for a major offensive against rebels in Syria’s Idlib. The Syrian regime, as it has been the case since the outbreak of the revolution seven years ago, is moving ahead with its military plans with the aid of Russia and Iran.

But on the other side, there are two major actors who are adamantly opposing the regime’s movements: the US and Turkey.

The Syrian regime seeks to get rid of the ‘Idlib headache’ and wrest control over the Syrian soil, capping years of heavy bombings and horrendous massacres.

Washington and Ankara:

The US and Turkey are supportive of ‘some’ rebels groups in Idlib. All the rebel groups, those backed and those despised by the US will be having no place to go to if the regime emerges victorious from the looming battle.

Turkey, which imposed its control over some Syrian areas in the north including Afrin, sees Idlib as an utterly strategic spot. Military posts are being established there by the Turks.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire and for a “comprehensive international terrorism operation” involving the “moderate” rebels his country supports.

A pro-Turkey group named al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir, or the National Front for Liberation, was formed on August 1. It is made up of five rebel groups operating in Idlib and the northern countryside of Hama.

Turkey is reinforcing its military observation posts inside rebel-held north-western Syria ahead of an expected government offensive.

Activists saw a convoy heading towards some of the 12 posts set up last year under a “de-escalation” deal with the government’s allies, Russia and Iran.

The first motive behind the Turkish position is that Idlib is home to over three million people, with some estimates saying 3.5 million. Any wide-scale offensive could result in an influx of refugees toward Turkey, which already hosts nearly the same number of Syrian refugees.

Turkey can no longer take in more refugees amid a currency crisis and under both domestic and western pressures to put an end to the waves of refugees.

Secondly, the Turkish army may engage in a deadly face-off with the Syrian regime and its allies in case any confrontation is ignited. Options available at hands will be bitter. And if the regime emerges victorious in Idlib, it will be given a great boost to capture the other areas controlled by Ankara.

For the US, the issue is no less sensitive. The US and Iran have been engaged in both political and military skirmishes and standoffs over various files, including the nuke pact and the Iranian limitless support of the Syrian regime which gave the latter a leverage over most of the revolutionary factions. The US military had set up bases in al-Tanf crossing, which is a very sensitive spot when it comes to pushing back on the pro-Iran militias.

Iran:

According to reports, Iran is utterly interested in having a toehold near al-Tanf area. Experts cited in these reports say that Iran sees the crossing as it passport for imposing a ubiquitous presence in the area.

This crossing is very important in the military strategic aspects. It is located at an area falling administratively under the authorities of Homs province. It is 240 kilometers away from Palmyra. And it is one of several crossings on the Syrian-Iraqi borders such as Abukamal in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour.

For the US, Iran’s taking control of al-Tanf is a red line, they explained, adding if Iran managed to occupy this area, it will impose full control a key strategic spot in the region.

There will be a tremendous showdown between the two parties if attempts to lull the situation fail.

Therefore, the prime aim of Turkey is to defeat the regime in Idlib, thwart its plots to recapture the area and prevent any possible bloodbath or influx of refugees in the aftermath of any possible carnage.

And the US seeks to trim any further influence by its arch-foe Iran as the US administration is adopting a harsh strategy against the Iranian regime, accused by regional and Western powers of backing terror.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, warned both countries of “dire consequences” if they continued with airstrikes against Idlib.

Many analysts suggest the situation in Idlib may be heading for the abyss. Four major powers will clash head-on for the area, opening the door for what it may develop into a global war.

A Russian game:

The Russians seem to be inflaming the situations there. They are strong backers for Syria and Iran. And they seek to diminish the US and Turkish presence there.

Russia-backed regime forces have massed around Idlib in recent weeks, raising fears of an imminent air and ground attack to retake the last major opposition bastion.

But the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denied the reports, saying “What is being presented at the moment as the beginning of a Russian-backed offensive by Syrian forces is not a faithful representation of the facts.”

Furthermore, Lavrov stated that Russia was concerned about civilians’ welfare.

“We will take care on these issues, we will establish humanitarian corridors, set up ceasefire zones and we are doing everything to ensure that the civilian population would not suffer,” he said.

But experts questioned the faithfulness of these remarks, saying they are part of a plot being hatched between the regime and its allies.  They cited the remarks where Russian top diplomat said ‘“Syrian forces and we ourselves are simply reacting to the attacks coming from the zone of Idlib”.

They also cited the incessant air raids on the rebel posts after the US warnings.

The Syrian regime and its allies have been preparing a large-scale military onslaught to capture Idlib which hosts some three million people.

Air raids and shelling of southern Idlib and northern Hama provinces escalated over the past week after Moscow and Tehran rejected a Turkish ceasefire proposal at a trilateral summit held in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on September 7.

In the same context, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on parties to the conflict in Syria to protect civilians trapped in the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, saying it “must not be transformed into a bloodbath”.

Guterres said on Tuesday that preventing a full-scale battle in Syria’s northern Idlib province was “absolutely essential”.

“This would unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict.”

Fearing the dire consequences of any military escalation in Idlib, thousands of people have taken to the streets across Syria’s last remaining stronghold to protest against a potential full-fledged offensive by regime forces and their allies.

Activists said Friday’s demonstrations took place in more than two dozen towns and villages in Idlib, a northwest province that is home to more than three million people.

In Idlib, everybody wants to emerge victorious. The Syrian regime and Russia want to gain more leverage at the expense of the Turkish and US presence in the area. Turkey wants to secure and protect itself. And the US will not withdraw from the arena, contradicting its push to counter the Iranian terror in the region.

The rebels see Idlib as their last resort and outlet, losing it means it over for them. Civilians are devastated by the brutal years-long conflict where all weapons were used against them. The regime wants to continue its streak of victories over rebels and restore the whole country it itself has turned into ashes.

Losing the battle for Idlib will be the final blow for the parties that will taste defeat in case any confrontation happens. But it will likely represent a new chapter on the global stage that may start with a full-scale global war. It may be the final whistle of the ongoing conflict in Syria, but the battle may unleash hell worldwide.

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