The fight for Idlib is getting tougher. None of the actors is willing to put aside their interests for civilians. This is how conflicting interests collide. A look at the key players.

Turkey: commitment beyond national borders

Turkey has several goals in Syria. First and foremost, it wants to prevent further Syrian refugees from entering their territory. There are already 3.6 million Syrians there. The government in Ankara fears that the pressure on Turkey from the approximately four million inhabitants of the Idlib region – including media pressure – could become so great that it would eventually have to let at least some of the refugees into their country.

At the same time, the Turkish government is also trying to control the Kurdish areas in northern Syria. She is worried that an autonomous Kurdish province could emerge there, which could reach Turkey and inspire the Kurds living there to take a more autonomous course.  

Russia: on the side of Assad

At the end of September 2015, the Russian government complied with the Syrian government’s request for assistance against the armed opposition. Since then, Russia has been firmly at the side of the Assad government and supports it politically and militarily. “Let me remind you that we always said that we would fight against the ‘Islamic State’ and other groups,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the time when he launched his country’s military operation. With this argument, Russia is now supporting the Syrian army in the Idlib region.

Since the Russian government barely expresses its goals beyond the term “fight against terror”, it has been speculated for years. The most plausible argument is that Russia wants to revive its largely lost presence in the Middle East after the collapse of the then USSR in the early 1990s.

Russia is rigorous in Syria: together with the Syrian army, the Russian military flies attacks on the region. These are not limited to the positions of the rebels but are also targeting civilian areas – including hospitals and hospitals.

Conflict in Syria (picture-alliance / dpa / A. Alkharboutli)Fainting: A Syrian man stands in front of the rubble of his house after an air raid, February 2020

The Syrian government: maintaining power at all costs

For the Assad government, the purpose justifies all means: it wants to quell the uprising that broke out in 2011, at all costs. Human rights organizations accuse her of being responsible for the vast majority of the more than half a million Syrians who died in the conflict.

After the government was almost defeated militarily against the comparatively well-equipped rebels in 2015, it was able to rise again with Russian support. Since then it has conquered the areas lost to the insurgents step by step. The last remaining rebel region in Idlib. The massive refugee move indicates how carefree the government is against its citizens, without any willingness to make the slightest difference between uninvolved civilians and armed opposition figures. “Anyone who still believed that they could negotiate with the rulers in Damascus about the political future of Syria should finally throw this naivety overboard,” wrote the FAZ journalist Rainer Herman in his commentary for DW.

The Assad government is not solely concerned with regaining control of Idlib. But also to set an example and remind citizens once again that any opposition to the government is a deadly risk. The Syrians should have internalized this lesson for years, if not decades.

Iran: invisible locally

Iran also appears to be present in Idlib. The government in Tehran has not officially confirmed the presence of Iranian forces. But at the end of January, the British newspaper “The Daily Telegraph” reported intercepted radio communications by Iranian-backed fighters from Afghanistan who belong to the Fatemiyoun Division. These documented the participation of the fighters in the battle for Idlib, the newspaper said. The number of these fighters is between 400 and 800. 

Iran has been with the Assad government for years. The government in Tehran is seeking allies in the Arab world. She doesn’t have too many of them. Above all, it has hardly any good relations with the governments in the region. The closest is to the cabinet of Bashar al-Assad. There are also unofficial contacts with Hezbollah in Lebanon, with several Shiite groups in Iraq or with the rebellious Houthis in Yemen. 

Iran also pursues business interests in Syria. For example, attractive properties in Damascus have become the property of Iranian citizens.

Turkey Ankara PK Ruhani Erdogan and Putin (Imago Images / Depo Photos)Good contacts: Iranian President Rouhani (left), his counterparts Erdogan (mi.) And Putin (right), September 2019

The rebels: doomed to fight

The rebels in Idlib are made up of different ideological groups. There are Islamists, jihadists and secular forces on site.

Units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) met last autumn with the opposition national army launched by Turkey in the context of its intervention in northern Syria in 2018. This “organizational step” would help the rebels to free the country from the regime, a spokesman said at the time.

Regardless of this alliance, the most important jihadist group in the region, the Al Qaeda-affiliated militia “Hajat Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) operates. It remains the strongest force in Idlib. HTS, in particular, provides Syria and Russia with justification for their operation: Politicians from Damascus and Moscow explain that these are aimed exclusively against “terrorists”.

What all rebel groups have in common is that they have little choice but to keep fighting until the end. If they surrender, they can hardly hope for mercy. So far, Syria and Russia have not taken prisoners: the fight for Idlib is one of life and death. 

Syien Ariha Idlib province after airstrikes (AFP / OH Kadour)Destruction: a scene from the village of Ariha in Idlib, January 2020

The European states: passed out observers

The European states remain in the audience. Repeated diplomatic efforts have failed. Although Europeans can alleviate the fate of civilians through humanitarian aid, they do little to achieve it politically. At the same time, the European states want to accept as few refugees as possible. So they only have to push for moderation. Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently complained of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the Syrian town of Idlib. Russia and Turkey are jointly responsible for this.  


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