Continuing his weekly series about the complexities of the Middle East, Ahmed Aboudouh examines developments in the ongoing Syrian conflict.
Syrian and Russian soldiers are pushing to take Idlib, the last bastion for the opposition groups in northwestern Syria, in a move that is likely to force hundreds of thousands to flee their homes towards the Turkish borders further north.
The complicated situation has arisen when the Syrian air forces and the Russia jets intensified their strikes on scattered towns and villages south of Idlib city. The area has been home for up to 3 million displaced civilians who took refuge from President Bashar al-Assad’s overwhelming military campaign to retake all other parts of Syria.
Assad forces, heavily backed by Russia and loyal militias to Iran, drove the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham out of the strategic town of Khan Sheikhun this week, and captured most of its central areas, where up to 1 million population used to live. Around 700,000 of them have been forced to abandon the town.
1 Who are the fighting parties?
It is a complicated mix on both sides. The Syrian army is leading the push, with hefty military support from Russia and Iran-affiliated militias. They want to drive out a hodgepodge of Islamic militants and other groups opposing Assad’s rule since 2011.
Last January, HTS managed, through rounds of fierce fighting with other militant and opposition groups, to control vast areas in Idlib province, including the provincial capital and the border crossing with Turkey at Bab al-Hawa.
HTS is the strongest group in the northwest, but it formed alliances with other jihadi groups including the National Liberation Front (Turkish-backed rebel alliance), Hurras al-Din (HTS offshoot), and the Turkistan Islamic Party.
Damascus and Moscow use the jihadis’ presence in the area to justify the upsurge in the military operations.
2 Why is Khan Sheikhun important to Assad and Russia?
The town’s location is crucial in Assad’s bid to recapture Idlib. Taking Khan Sheikhun would be an important gain for Moscow and its ally into the northwestern region, where Moscow has helped Assad to turn the tide in the eight-year conflict since stepping up its intervention in 2015.
It would cut the strategic highway between Aleppo and Damascus. It would also intensify the pressure on Turkey to remove its military observation posts set up in the area due to a demilitarised deal signed off nearly a year ago by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin to stave off a Syrian military advance against Idlib.
Erdogan’s deal with Putin managed to temporarily halt a planned Syrian an imminent attack on Idlib, an operation that US president Donald Trump threatened to stop by force, but continued militant activity within demilitarised areas and Syrian and Russian airstrikes on the province have undermined the deal terms.
A convoy of Turkish tanks and armoured vehicles, on its way to an observation post near Khan Sheikhun, has been forced to stop after being targeted by Syrian jets. Damascus denounced what it said was a Turkish attempt to save routed rebels.
The move risked a direct confrontation between Syria and Turkey, for the first time since the beginning of the war.
Analysts say Turkey seeks to undermine Assad’s push and restore calm in and around Idlib. Erdogan sees stability in the region as a chance to turn the table on the Kurds near Turkey’s border.
Turkey also wants to thwart Assad’s attack on Idlib in a bid to stop the flow of Syrian refugees, at a time when Turkish authorities have been deporting Syrians, mainly in Istanbul.
3 What is the humanitarian situation?
It looks grim. Hospitals are under systematic bombing raids, which target bakeries and markets too.
After months of stalemate Russia has increased the intensity of raids in the past two weeks, transforming the situation on the ground. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and at least 400,000 people displaced, medics, NGOs and the United Nations say.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights said 196 children were among the 843 civilians killed in the Russian and Syrian raids since the campaign began last April.
“The flow of cars and vehicles leaving is not stopping,” Abdullah Younis from the city told Reuters. Rescuers there said around 60,000 people had fled in the past few days alone.
Moscow and Damascus, who deny indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas or targeting hospitals, say they are fighting jihadi militants drawn from across the world.
Rebels concede most of their fighters have fled Khan Sheikhoun but are providing fierce resistance to the Syrian army, which has secured a foothold in the rebel-held town that was bombed with sarin gas in 2017.