With the Assad regime as its proxy in the Middle East power game, Russia is boosting its naval buildup in the east Mediterranean to back the decisive Idlib assault.
It’s a rerun of the Syrian tragedy: hundreds of thousands of people trapped in towns cut off from rest of the country. Relief workers warning of an impending human catastrophe. Homes and hospitals being battered by artillery shells. A ragtag group of fighters awaiting certain death and a despot seeking victory at any cost.
Idlib, in northwestern Syria, is the last stand for the opposition and rebel groups who have fought a bloody war against the regime of Bashar al Assad since 2011.
It could be another Aleppo, the historic city which was overrun in late 2016 in a brutal assault by the regime forces that are backed by Russian airpower. During the four years of fighting in the city, at least 30,000 people died, according to Violations Documentation Centre.
This time the Syrian regime is adamant on decimating every trace of the opposition. Russia, which jumped into the conflict in support of the Syrian regime in mid-2015, and Iran’s Shia militias have helped the Assad regime remain in power and go scot-free even as it used lethal chemical weapons on civilian areas.
After years of fighting and defeats for the opposition fighters, Idlib became the converging point of all opposition and rebel groups, hosting nearly 3 million people who don’t want to live under Assad's dictatorial rule. Like its previous Aleppo offensive, there are ominous signs that a new regime operation against Idlib could create catastrophic humanitarian results.
But in the end, in military terms, the regime might prevail one more time and wrest control of the last opposition stronghold from anti-Assad rebels, experts say.
“The Assad regime will stay in Syria,” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of Turkey’s national intelligence agency. “By taking over Idlib, the regime will have a chance to prove that it is able to ensure the territorial integrity of Syria.”
Experts argue that the final outcome of the war will be determined by political negotiations, where the Russia-backed Assad regime will have an upper hand.
“Idlib is the last stop in Syria’s civil war. It seems that the Syrian conflict will be resolved in a political framework centred on Russian power and the Assad regime,” said Deniz Ulke Aribogan, professor of political science at Uskudar University. Aribogan’s late father retired as a senior ranked officer in Turkey's National Intelligence Agency, or MIT.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s top diplomat, described opposition forces stuck in Idlib as a "festering abscess," which should be eliminated soon. According to a Russian media outlet, Moscow has increased its naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean to the highest level during the civil war.
Lavrov also pointed out that his country has been developing an understanding with both Turkey, which has supported moderate opposition elements against Assad, and the US, which has created an American-friendly enclave in northeastern Syria by backing YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed PKK.
“It seems that Russia and the US have reached some kind of agreement on the Syrian conflict. Following the Idlib operation, we will see that a political resolution accepted by most parties will be reached,” Ones told TRT World.
In July, after a meeting in Finland, a country which borders Russia and had served as a buffer state with its neutrality between the former Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War, both US and Russian leaders emphasised their intention to work together in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described Russian-American military cooperation in Syria as “the first showcase example of the successful joint work.” US President Donald Trump agreed with Putin. “Our militaries do get along very well, and they do coordinate in Syria and other places,” Trump said.
“I think we can say that US and Russia have agreed on some kind of federative Syria,” Ones told TRT World, describing a possible outcome after the end of the civil war. He means both Russia and the US are supporting Kurdish autonomy in the country’s northern territories, where the YPG has already carved out a Kurdish-dominated region with its self-proclaimed “cantons,” or autonomous regions, since the beginning of the civil war.
The YPG is on good terms with both Russia and the US. Its ideological mentor the PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and NATO. The PKK has waged an armed campaign against the Turkish state since 1984, costing tens of thousands of lives.
A possible US-Russia axis favouring Kurdish autonomy makes Ankara uneasy. The Obama administration's inconsistent Syria policies, which have mostly been left unchanged by the Trump administration, have augmented Turkish concerns on Syria.
“All the countries involving Syria, except Turkey, have changed their respective policies,” Aribogan told TRT World. Turkey hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees and has spent more resources than any country for humanitarian aid of Syrians.
“[British Prime Minister David] Cameron could not pass his intervention request from British parliament and [former US President] Obama also backtracked from what he pledged to do in Syria, leaving the country in crisis and Turkey alone to deal with it," Aribogan says.
As a result, despite its opposition to the Assad regime, Turkey has decided to reach out to both Moscow and Tehran, his main allies, in 2016 in order to find common ground to secure their regional interests.
Eventually, Turkey, Russia and Iran entered into a political dialogue, which came to be known as the Astana peace process. It was an attempt to resolve the conflict outside of what the US and others were trying to achieve through the UN-led Geneva peace process.
“Turkey appeared to develop its own political maneuvering through the Astana peace process in order to create an opportunity to change its Syrian policy,” Aribogan observed.
Long before preparations began for an assault on Idlib, which had become inevitable after the fall of Aleppo, Turkey reached an agreement with Russia and Iran to create de-escalation zones in the province to sideline hardline militants tied to groups like Al Qaeda.
"Now as the Syrian regime edges towards the final assault, Turkey might have to make a tough call on developing some sort of a political understanding with Damascus," Ones said.
“Defending the Syrian territorial integrity should be Turkey’s most important political priority. Otherwise, [our opposition to the Assad regime] could play into the hands of the US, which has intentions to divide Syria,” Ones observed.
After having an understanding with both Russia and Iran, “We need to compromise with Assad in order to exert our influence over the regime. That kind of capability will also demonstrate that we are a powerful regional player no matter what,” Ones said.
“From now on, our role should be that of a mediator between the Syrian opposition forces and the Assad regime. Through our mediation efforts, we could re-establish our influence over Syria.”
Some former Idlib residents currently living in Turkey partly agree with Ones’ assessment.
“We hope that Turkey can put pressure on the Assad regime to make the regime and Russia find a peaceful solution for Idlib as opposed to a full-fledged military operation, which could cause numerous massacres as it happened in other Assad-occupied locations,” said Riyadh Ahmad Qadmun, a 53-year-old Syrian refugee from Idlib.
Qadmun supported the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime from the very beginning in 2011. He has been a member of the Syrian Democratic Left Party.
The regime is staging psychological warfare against the people of Idlib, spreading rumors to confuse people about the resistance, Qadmun told TRT World. "But the people of Idlib reject the regime anyway, and the resistance will fight to the very end."
People are also afraid of the disproportional assault, he says. Assad regime has used chemical attacks against civilians in his previous attacks to subdue resistance.
“Some UN officers told us that another chemical attack could happen again in Idlib,” said another Syrian activist who does not want to disclose his name.
“It’s very confusing.”
Ahmad Stephan and Nadia Ali Mousto contributed to this article.