Tue 18 Dec 2018

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Idlib Governorate in the Face of Assad’s Threats and Russian-Turkish Understandings

A troop from “Jaysh al-Izza” in a training camp, northern rural Aleppo – August 2018 (Khalil al-Ashawy)

A troop from “Jaysh al-Izza” in a training camp, northern rural Aleppo – August 2018 (Khalil al-Ashawy)

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Idlib governorate is today under the duress of a phase, possibly, the most difficult at the political and security levels, as it faces threats from Assad’s forces and allied militias and the pressure of the outcomes of the Russian-Turkish understandings concerning it, as an area covered by the “de-escalation” agreement signed under “Astana” talks.

 

Analysis and questions about Idlib’s destiny in the upcoming period are still nagging away, and, so far, they are all viewed as speculations, without a clear vision about the future that will include the area’s civilians and military factions, on top of which is “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS).

In the past a few days, Assad’s forces and allied militias have called in enhancements to the governorate’s surrounding, in a step that promises the beginning of an anticipated military operation. The mobilization corresponded to airborne leaflets, which were released above different areas, necessitating that residents indulge in the “reconciliation” agreement with the Syrian regime.

All this was preceded by official Russian statements, in which Russia focused on its lack of intention to initiate any military operation against Idlib, counting on the “moderate” opposition factions to resolve “Tahrir al-Sham’s” problem with the Turks, which places  the governorate, the largest human reservoir in Syria, in  front of a fuggy future, as it sways between Assad’s threats and action on the part of the “guarantor countries,” which are conducted behind closed doors without any sort of formal announcements.

 

Bombardment in Response to the Arrest of “Negotiations’ Godfathers”

Idlib, in the duration that followed Assad’s forces control over the entire parts of Southern Syria, has passed through different developments, the most prominent of which took place on August 10, for all its areas suffered an intensified aerial shelling by both military aircraft and helicopters, which led to the death of more than 15 civilians, in addition 25 civilians in the town of Urum al-Kubra, the western countryside of Aleppo, who died in a focused bombardment that targeted residential neighborhoods.

The surprising shelling triggered questions about the reasons that led to it, especially that it corresponded to the mobilization of military vehicles and field cannons. Loyalist networks, including “Reporters” and “Damascus Now” mentioned that “Idlib’s battle will start in the coming days and that its decision has been made.”

A “Free Army” commander said that the shelling came as an answer to the security campaign launched by “Tahrir al-Sham” and the “National Front for Liberation” in the past a few days, during which dozens of regime-affiliated personalities were arrested.

The commander told Enab Baladi, on the condition of anonymity, that arrangements were being made to start demonstrations in favor of the Syrian regime in the upcoming days in the eastern part of al-Tamanah, which Assad’s forces will use as a justification to progress into the area, alleging that it is the people’s desire.

However, “Tahrir al-Sham” and the “Liberation Front’s” security operation has aborted this plan, as they arrested the heads of the “reconciliations,” including the nephew of Ahmad al-Darwish, from the town of Abu Dali, the astern countryside of Hama, who is known for his tight bonds with the Syrian regime.

In an interview with Naji al-Mustafa, official spokesman of the “National Front,” he said that the campaign followed security information reporting that there are personalities marketing for a reconciliation with the Syrian regime and facilitating for its entry to the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition in Idlib.

He added, telling Enab Baladi, that many of them were arrested after evidence was obtained for their communication with the Syrian regime.

The source, quoted by the reporter, believes that the Syrian regime is not willing to attack any of the opposition-held areas in Northern Syria, pointing out that “guarantor states,” Russia and Turkey in particular, have on Friday discussed the reasons that highlight the shelling which the Syrian regime initiated and to which the opposition factions in various areas in rural Hama and the western countryside of Aleppo have responded.

The factions, performing in Idlib, are afraid that the northern areas of Syria might fall out of control due to “reconciliation” agreements with the regime, which is currently promoting these agreements as a “healthy” step to regain control over its areas with the least possible military casualties.

The source declared that an order has been issued to Turkish forces, providing for their being at the forefront of the “Free Army” faction’s lines to combat any attack on the part of Assad’s forces. The information that the source provided are based on a meeting that joined the “Free Army” factions with the Turkish supervision point in the area of Sarman, pointing out that “the Turkish forces have no plans to retreat from their positions.”

 

Waves of Displacement

Due to the threats that Assad’s forces have been issuing and the sudden shelling, civilians in Idlib and rural Hama are afraid that a military operation might break out in their towns and villages, which forced part of them, especially those based in the northern countryside of Hama and the southern rural parts of Idlib, to leave their homes towards safer areas.

“Response Coordinators in Northern Syria” have on August 10 issued a statement, in which they reported that families from the town of al-Tah, rural Idlib, have been entirely displaced to surrounding areas, which already incubate displaced people from the town of al-Tamanah and the eastern rural parts of Hama. In addition to this, dozens of families from al-Tamanah have also been displaced, where only 5 to 10 percent of the population stayed in the area.

The displacement wave was not limited to the southern countryside of Idlib, as it reached the northern countryside of Hama, from the city of Kafr Zita, from where part of the people headed towards camps and others headed to the city of Khan Shaykhun.

The “Response Coordinators” pointed out that a large number of the displaced families are under the trees, waiting for the return of relative calm to their towns and villages.

According to UN estimates, Idlib governorate houses more than four million civilians and is now preparing all that is needed to combat a battle expected to be launched by Assad’s forces.

Early in August, Turkey, Iran and Russia have agreed to extend the duration of Idlib’s “de-escalation” agreement, on the condition that attacks targeting the Russian Khmeimim Air Base, rural Lattakia, be stopped.

Late in July, Russia has announced that currently it does not intend to undertake a military operation in Idlib and linked the governorate’s fate with Turkey and the “moderate” opposition factions. Prior to this, Turkey has warned Assad’s forces from conducting any attack against the opposition-held areas in Northern Syria, alluding to the failure of Geneva deal.

Musaab al-Ashqar, a member of Free Hama Provincial Council, told Enab Baladi that the mainstream in rural Hama, the western part in particular, is expressing concern and stress in relation to the area’s fate in the coming phase.

He added that hundreds of families have escaped their areas to the borders with Turkey, fearing the “regime’s tyranny” and its progress, especially after the focused shelling that lately targeted the towns and villages of al-Ziyarah district.

 

Turkish Reassurances

The political activist Abdulqader Barakat, a displaced person from the village of al-Ramlah, al-Ghab Plain, believes that Assad’s forces are resorting to threats because they are incapable of storming Idlib governorate.

Barakat told Enab Baladi that he met with the officer-in-charge of the Turkish supervision point in Shashabo Mountain, along with other civilians, who informed them that the point is there to prevent the Syrian regime’s progress, stressing that “the regime’s threats are a psychological media war to terrorize people, and that they will start constructing police stations in all the areas in the future.”

Turkey has not provided an opinion about Assad’s forces threats of starting a military operation in the coming days, and its statements about Idlib went short since the beginning of the presidential elections. However, to the day, it is keen on enhancing its supervision points with cement blocks, which were preceded by the installation of telecommunication towers and mobilization of military vehicles to the area’s where the points are located.

For his part, Hatem al-Jaber, a displaced person from the village of al-Hakourah, rural Hama, has expressed his fear of Assad’s progress into Idlib and its surrounding after they had total control over Southern Syria.

He informed Enab Baladi, quoting the previously mentioned Turkish officer, that Turkey is holding the fate of the towns in rural Hama and police stations will be established there in the future.

According to the officer, a buffer zone will be found in al-Ghab Plain, the nearest point to the “liberated” areas, with a width of ten kilometers and a length of 30 kilometers.

The Turkish officer declared that the people, under “Astana” talks, will return to their villages in al-Ghab Plain, which the regime has controlled and that the disarmament area, between the opposition factions and Assad’s forces, will be the western channel of al-Asi river.

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