The battle for Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria’s more than seven-year-long civil war, is about to start. The war is all but over. Salvaged by Russia and Iran, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime has won. An initially broad-based rebellion against tyranny that was hijacked by jihadi extremists has lost. With Idlib it looks like this conflict — already a catalogue of horror — has saved the worst for last. Idlib, in north-west Syria, was one of the first cities to rise up against the Assads. Taken by the regime in 2012, it was captured in 2015 by a potent alliance of the al Qaeda-linked Nusra front and Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist group supported by Turkey. Last year it became one of four “de-escalation zones” devised by Russia in co-ordination with Iran and Turkey. Resistance in these areas was still strong and the Assad regime, short of manpower, needed breathing space. The zones then became a diplomatic figleaf to cover the regime’s renewed advances alongside Iranian-supplied militia on the ground and the Russian air force in the sky.
The Assad regime is preparing an offensive on the last rebel stronghold
The pro-Assad coalition, far from de-escalating, recaptured Deraa in the south, where the rebellion began, and eastern Ghouta near Damascus. Surviving fighters and civilian refugees from these ruins were driven north to Idlib, corralled into what Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, calls the “last hotbed of terrorists” in Syria — now ripe for eradication. Estimates vary wildly but there are thought to be between 30,000 and 70,000 fighters in Idlib province. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the rebranded Nusra front, is probably the most powerful group, having forcibly taken over much of the Turkish-allied Ahrar al-Sham. Ankara has regrouped its Syrian proxies into a newly minted National Liberation Front, as a counterweight to HTS, alongside 12 Turkish army “observation posts” in Idlib that are supposed to separate the warring parties. But there are also more than 3m civilians in the area, half of them refugees from other rebel enclaves, crammed into less than 1,500 sq km. They have run out of de-escalation zones to flee to.
Those who have been displaced before will recognise the signals that preceded the offensives against their previous homes: episodic air strikes to test world opinion; targeting of hospitals and markets; the pre-emptive denunciation of jihadist provocateurs supposedly preparing chemical attacks to blame on the Syrian government (which used gas at Douma in the Ghouta offensive). In Tehran last Friday, a summit of Russia, Turkey and Iran could not agree on a formula to spare Idlib and its desperate people from being pulverised. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s leader, publicly disagreed. Ankara wants the offensive put on hold. A humanitarian disaster will trigger a massive new surge of refugees. Turkey, which already hosts 3.5m Syrian exiles, has closed its borders. But that will simply displace the flows into already teeming areas it controls in north-west Syria, Afrin and Jarablus. Mr Erdogan’s seizure of these territories over the past two years was allowed by Mr Putin, but on the understanding Turkey dealt with the jihadi menace in Idlib.
Now Moscow plans to liquidate this threat, including large numbers of Uzbek and Chechen fighters that might blow back into Russia. Where, at this point, are the western powers that willed the downfall of the Assads without providing Syria’s rebels with the means to achieve it, muttering it was just all too complicated? US forces are dislodging Isis — the jihadist spawn of western recklessness in Iraq and fecklessness in Syria — from its remaining toeholds in the Euphrates valley south-east of Idlib. President Donald Trump found time to tweet that it would be “a grave humanitarian mistake” for Russia and Iran to abet a bloodbath.
European powers are busily trying to disengage from and, where possible, ignore Syria. It does not look like they are well braced for the coming refugee crisis that threatens to revive the “migrant” hysteria that seized Europe in 2015-16. Russia has been telling Germany and France it can facilitate the return of some 6m Syrian refugees, if only the EU and the US reconcile with Assad rule in the interests of stability and cough up the funds to resurrect Syria from the rubble. This is a delusion. The Assads will never allow the re-creation of a demographic balance — a prewar population with a 70 per cent Sunni majority — that almost brought their minority regime down.
The regime is preventing the return of Sunni Arab men and boys of fighting age. It has also passed decrees — notably the infamous Law 10 or Absentee Property Law — to expropriate the homes and assets of refugees. Russia has leverage against Europe, which fears a new refugee scare. But Europeans have something Mr Putin wants: the power to normalise relations with Syria and the money to reconstruct it. Somewhere in the tangle of this mutual blackmail may lie the material for a diplomatic thrust to restrain the Idlib offensive. What is certain is that Syria cannot be wished away. Idlib is about to put the conflict back on the international agenda — in what is shaping up to be a horrendous fashion.