Why a Modest Agricultural Region Became the Nucleus of the Syrian Conflict? How Can It Become its Solution?
Emre Kursat Kaya, Research Fellow
For the umpteenth time, the Syrian conflict has made a great come back to the headlines of the international media. While clashes have been scarcely going on, the recent escalation in Idlib attracts much of the attention as it might provoke yet another major wave of refugee inflow to Turkey and Europe. Indeed, regime forces backed by pro-Iran militias and the Russian Aerospace Forces are conducting a large-scale offensive on the last (solely) rebel-held territory in Syria since early December.
Why Idlib can cause a new humanitarian crisis?
Idlib has been one of the strongholds of the Syrian rebels, and more recently a region filled with extremist groups. The region which originally counted a population of less than a million has now 3 million residents. The majority of its inhabitants are internally displaced persons (IDPs). In contrast to the regions controlled by Turkish-backed rebels, Idlib has a highly heterogeneous population.
Almost two million Idlib residents piled up to the north of the region seeking to cross the Turkish border. Recent regime offensives on the ground have targeted strategic chokepoints which pointed towards one objective: pushing this population to Turkey. After taking over the control of the M5 highway, the regime initially focused its pressure on Atarib. The town is located on the way to the Turkish crossing of Cilvegozu, where the vast majority of the IDPs are stacked. The regime also attempted to cut the main route of communication between Idlib and the Olive Branch Operation Zone in the north. If succeeded, the sole exit option for the persons living in Idlib would be towards Turkey.
Why are they in Idlib?
Since September 2015 and Russia’s assertive military intervention in Syria, the Assad regime and its belligerent militia forces have gradually regained control over approximately 65% of the territory. The regime has usually used the same modus operandi to recapture rebel strongholds: first heavy artillery shelling and indiscriminate airstrikes by the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Forces contingency in Syria, then an intensive ground offensive led by the regime’s elite forces.
Yet, in-between these two operational stages, the regime offers indigenous rebels the option of an evacuation deal. In condition to surrender their weapons, the regime opens corridors to Idlib for rebels. Thousands of civilians and militants were transported by convoys of buses from once rebel strongholds of eastern Ghouta, Daraya, and Daraa.
Thus, Syria’s IDPs did not find themselves in Idlib coincidentally. It was a deliberate attempt by the regime and its sectarian elite to displace Sunni populations as far as possible from Damascus and the Alawite hinterland. By forcing these groups to move to Idlib, a region known to be partly controlled by Al-Qaeda linked groups, the regime also managed to win an information battle. In Idlib, exhausted moderate rebel groups found themselves under the pressure of another kind of adversary such as the extremist group of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
The cynical Idlib plan of the Assad regime went one step further by even transferring ISIS members from Al Bukamal, one of the last ISIS strongholds in Syria. Reportedly 400 ISIS militants were transferred to Idlib overnight in 2018.
Why is there no going back under regime control?
There are two interconnected reasons for rebels to not wanting to go back under regime authority. First, the regime does not hide its desire to keep refugees and rebels out of Syria. Key figures of the regime’s sectarian security apparatus made that point clear on several occasions. For example, in 2018, Major General Jamal al-Hassan, the influential ex-head of Syria’s air force intelligence declared that “a Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.” In another example, Issam Zahreddine, a now-dead major general in the Republican Guard, the most elite formation of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces gave the following advice to Syrian refugees: “to those who fled Syria to another country, I beg you don’t ever return, because even if the government forgives you, we will never forgive or forget. If you know what is good for you, none of you return.“
These statements depict the real motive of the regime; the demographic change of Syria. Most of the refugees are Sunni Arabs. Similarly, almost all IDPs in Idlib are coming from heavily Sunni populated areas of Syria. The minority Alawite regime has already managed to force to exile half of Syria’s Sunni inhabitants, once representing two-third of Syria. As demonstrated by the abovementioned statements, there is no reason to expect that the regime will allow the return of refugees or stop forcing Sunni Syrians out of the country.
Second, in regions where Damascus has declared victory over rebel groups such as Daraa or Suwayda, the so-called reconciliation process proved to be highly flawed. Indeed, several reports suggest that many ex-rebels who applied to Assad’s amnesty disappeared or got killed under torture. More recently, an increase in rebel activity has been recorded in these regions. While Assad won the war in south Syria, he does not seem to be able and/or willing to win the peace. There is no reason to expect a different outcome from Syrian rebels living in Idlib and other northern regions.
The only sustainable option: an internationally supported safe zone in northern Syria.
The Syrian “Civil” war did not start in one day and will also not end in one day. It created the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two. Besides displacing externally and internally more than 12 million Syrians, over half of the country’s population, it also structurally impacted neighboring countries and regions. While Assad has presumably won the war, peaceful life is not guaranteed for many Syrians in the foreseeable future.
The reconciliation process in other areas of Syria has demonstrated that holding Idlib or not, Syrian rebels will keep being persecuted by the regime leading to either taking up arms or leaving their homeland. The war has created hatred among Syria’s different sectarian groups. It will take time to overcome these experiences.
The regime has enacted housing laws to confiscate most of the properties of displaced persons. Thus, there is also no economic future for Syrian refugees and IDPs in regime-held areas. Additionally, the rebel-held war-torn north requires significant investment and reconstruction projects to become a livable place.
The facts are that (1) the Baathist regime sees a major part of its population as unwanted vandals, (2) therefore, Syrians will not live in peace in their homeland (3) and will keep fleeing to other countries, (4) yet neighboring or destination countries are not able or willing to take in more refugees.
It is both to the benefit and perhaps responsibility of neighboring and destination countries to get involved in Syria, not to fight the regime or its allies, but to create a safe zone for Syrians who are likely to be persecuted by their government. This zone would also respect the territorial integrity of Syria. The creation of such a buffer zone by an international humanitarian mission would both offer to Syrians the opportunity to live a decent life in their own country and bring an end to most of the tensions and conflicts in the country.