Idlib confrontation

February 11, 2020


THOUGH the Syrian conflict is far from settled, the level of violence seen in earlier years — especially after the uprising against Bashar al-Assad sparked the civil war in 2011 — has come down in the last couple of years. The primary reason for this is that the Syrian Arab Army now has the upper hand, helped in no small measure by its external allies Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Meanwhile, many of the opposition’s foreign friends, such as the Americans, Europeans and the Gulf Arabs, seem to have lost interest in the Syrian imbroglio and left the rebels to mostly fend for themselves. However, a fresh conflict is brewing in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, pitting Mr Assad’s forces against the Turkish military and its Syrian rebel allies. There was an exchange of fire on Monday and several Turkish troops reportedly lost their lives, while similar clashes a few days earlier had resulted in casualties on both sides. Idlib borders Turkey, while Ankara has said it has taken offensive action to “stop migration and human tragedy”. As always, ordinary people have been the most affected in the clashes, with the UN saying nearly half a million have been displaced. Turkish President Recep Erdogan has said Syrian forces must vacate Idlib’s ‘de-escalation zone’ by the end of the month, or else “Turkey will be obliged to do so itself”.

Up till now, Syria had been a proxy battlefield between the US-led bloc and what has been termed the ‘axis of resistance’, basically bringing together Iran and its allies. However, with the growing hostilities between Turkey and Syria, the threat of this conflict becoming a regional conflagration has increased manifold. Ankara had already sent troops into Syria last October to battle semi-autonomous Syrian Kurds, whom the Turks felt were providing sanctuary to the PKK. However, the situation in Idlib is very different as the militaries of two sovereign states are trading fire. While Ankara’s relationship with Damascus has been strained ever since the start of the Syrian conflict, it has retained cordial ties with Russia and Iran — Mr Assad’s primary foreign backers. In fact, the Astana and Sochi processes have involved all these players to try and peacefully settle the Syrian question. These channels of communication need to be reactivated to prevent the situation in Idlib from spiralling into something bigger. A new front in the Syrian war will only benefit militant actors, and increase the people’s miseries.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2020