Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Civilians are paying the price for battlefield gains by militants in northern Syria

Hayat Tahrir Al Sham has continued to gain power but its triumphs come at a cost and increase the risk of renewed fighting

Hayat Tahrir Al Sham fighters in Syria's Idlib province last year. AFP
Hayat Tahrir Al Sham fighters in Syria's Idlib province last year. AFP

Pity the civilians of Idlib. Three million people, including many who sought refuge from violence in the last province under rebel control in Syria, are beset by government forces keen to launch a destructive final assault, one that would complete its military victory after eight years of war.

And in their midst, surrounding their towns, live militants once aligned with Al Qaeda.

Idlib’s people were given a brief respite by a deal negotiated by Turkey and Russia to postpone the offensive but as the fighting subsided, winter set in, bringing with it freezing temperatures and torrential rains that swept away many refugee tents just before the new year. One little girl, Myriam Al Hussain, died a month ago today from the cold.

Now, major advances by terrorists threaten to upend the fragile peace.

The recent victories on the battlefield by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), the former affiliate of the global terror network Al Qaeda, were as swift as they were dramatic. Besieging and taking control of dozens of towns and villages, HTS routed rival rebel groups in a major show of force that prompted some to disband or flee to areas controlled by Turkish proxy forces.

The latest round of clashes erupted earlier this month and prompted Ankara to reinforce its borders with Idlib. But Turkey did not signal it intended to intervene in rebel infighting.

HTS was supposed to be reined in by Turkey, which controls the supply routes out of Syria from Idlib. It was part of the Sochi agreement in September that prevented an assault by the forces of Bashar Al Assad on the province.

Instead, HTS has continued to gain power. In addition to uprooting other rebel forces, it has used a civilian body called the Salvation Government that is nothing but a puppet of the group to exert its will on residents who oppose its hardline ideology and to act as a facade of civilian authority as a counterpart to its military arm.

The militant group is the latest iteration in the evolution of Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s wing in Syria, founded in 2012. HTS has now severed ties with the network that was founded by Osama bin Laden and its more hardline members have set up their own militant outfit. It remains one of the most powerful rebel actors and now seeks to unite opposition groups in Idlib under its banner.

The group’s latest gains pose the risk of renewed fighting in the province. Russia, Mr Al Assad’s main backer, has not indicated an assault is imminent but it now has a casus belli because it can point to the extremists’ gains and argue that a campaign to reclaim Idlib is a battle against terrorism.

But these developments also point to a greater reality of the war. Mr Al Assad has won and the status quo in Idlib is unsustainable.

Turkey does not appear intent on challenging HTS’s dominance in Idlib for the time being, as it is focused on a threat that it sees as more crucial to its national security interests – Kurdish militias near its border. Ankara trained, paid for and commands some 30,000 Syrian rebel fighters on the borders of Idlib but it intends to use them to dislodge Kurdish militias allied with the US and affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group behind insurgency against the Turkish state.

Washington is in the early stages of a withdrawal from Syria that was announced by a tweet from president Donald Trump. Turkey will require Russia’s consent to launch another ground assault in Syria against the Kurdish militias, a point that Moscow might use as leverage in negotiations over Idlib. Alternatively, Turkey might attack the Kurds, then turn its attention to Idlib and HTS, launching a campaign to eliminate the group.

All options are bitter pills to swallow for Idlib’s civilians, many of whom continue to oppose both Mr Al Assad and the extremists. They fear a widespread campaign of retribution by Mr Al Assad’s security forces if they retake the province and are in despair from the corruption and mismanagement of local rebels, as well as the hardline rules imposed by HTS. By default, Ankara offers the least unpalatable solution for many but its tutelage would itself be a bitter defeat for those who wish for Syria to remain unified and do not want foreign control.

The sad reality is that the fate of Idlib is in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran, acting without the accountability or oversight of an international peace process. Opaque deal-making has only postponed an inevitable slaughter, privileging the interests of regional powers over those of Syrians.

The only solution out of that quagmire is a revived Geneva peace process. Moscow remains keen to shift the economic burden of Syria’s reconstruction and maintaining the peace to more affluent western powers, including the European Union. The EU has no leverage other than reconstruction funds, which it has tied to progress on peace negotiations.

Europe should hold Russia to account, setting deadlines for reforms under the auspices of a UN-led process. France and Germany have already been working behind the scenes with Moscow but those negotiations have been dormant in recent months.

They must be revived in the interests of a broader process that includes Syrians everywhere, to try to find a lasting resolution to the crisis, rather than planting the seeds for the next conflict. The grand bargain-style realpolitik reminiscent of the colonial powers of the 20th century must end and in its place, Syrians must be empowered to decide on their own destiny.

Updated: January 16, 2019 05:20 PM