Azhar Vadi | Analysis | 09 September 2018
With huge amounts of Turkish armoured vehicles, tanks and men heading out to the Syrian Idlib frontier, it would be almost be safe to assume that this is the last card available in a series of badly dealt hands, to prevent a worsening situation for people in the region.
The question many are however asking right now is: will Turkish military presence and the word of Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan that his army will not stand by as spectators during an attack on Idlib, be enough to prevent a territorial assault by Syrian and Russian forces.
The answer is most probably no, but how the Syrians and Russians go about it may be slightly different from the past. Both, supported by the Iranians, have vowed to cleanse Idlib province of armed factions that they have labelled as terrorists.
Although reports have indicated that operations have begun, thus far they have been limited to aerial attacks – including fighter planes and helicopters dropping barrel bombs – as well as heavy artillery fire. There has been no land assault.
The attacks have been concentrated on the southern Idlib countryside particularly areas through which two main highways, the M4 and M5 run. The roads pass through the towns of Jishr-al -Shaghour, Saraqib, Khan Shaykhoon and Ma’ratun Nu’man respectively, linking Damascus in the south and Latakia in the west with Aleppo in the north.
Rebel groups have rejected calls to disband and claimed that whether they lay down their arms nor not, an attack by the Syrians and Russians will happen and that political solutions have all but run out.
So what will happen if this unfortunate next step is taken?
From a civilian perspective a huge population of people will be uprooted from their temporary dwellings and be forced to move again. Many of the Idlib residents are repeat refugees having fled from their homes in other areas of Syria as the regime has retaken territory that was for some period under rebel control.
Most of these people will move to the Turkish border in the north west and a sizeable population will move to the north of Idlib into Afrin and other towns along the northern border region now run by the Turks. Some will prepare to die in their houses, or refugee tents, as they simply have no will left in them to run further. And then there will be those amongst them who will chose to fight by picking up arms and joining one of the multitudes of rebel factions.
But this process is not expected to run in a similar manner to what happened in Ghouta, Aleppo and other areas where the Syrian military and its allies have been victorious.
There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, because there is nowhere else to really run to, many of the 3 million civilians will remain behind and the death toll will be extremely high if a rapid all out onslaught takes place. It will be a bloodbath. The eyes of the world are currently firmly glued to the region and both Iran and Russia in particular will suffer immense negative publicity due to civilian casualties being very high. Will they be willing to risk international sentiment turning against them as picture after picture of dead babies, blown up hospitals and schools reach the world on a scale that would far exceed previous atrocities?
Then there is the undeniable presence of the Turkish military. If Turkish soldiers come under attack through a calculated or miscalculated incident, are the Syrian trio willing to go up against a possible full scale Turkish retaliation? With President Erdogan’s recent statements of not being comfortable with sitting on the sidelines as a spectator, this could lead to a larger and much more unpredictable regional scenario, one that no side can afford.
Thirdly, the rebels have got nothing to lose this time. Like a cat in a corner, they will lash out at anything in order to turn the tables on their opponents and they are expected to throw all they have at any advancing military manoeuvre. Although they risk complete annihilation, there will be significant losses to the other side as well. Bodies never sell well at home, just ask the Americans.
It is more likely that the Syro/Russo/Iranian campaign will move in stages, slowly driving out people from southern Idlib clearing the main M4 and M5 highways. The movement of civilians away from the direct conflict zones will result in fewer causalities and less negative sentiment.
This will then lead to the next phase which will push closer to Idlib itself. By then they will have hoped that most of the civilians would have left already and perhaps some of the armed factions will lay down their arms. The process will most probably be tedious. With 22 people killed and 5000 people leaving their homes in the areas currently being shelled in the last 48 hours, this situation will get exceedingly worse at a slow, steady pace.
But then again, this is the Syrian War, and it could all work out in a very different way. Like the Mufti always says at the end of a fatwa to exonerate himself from any error in judgement, Allahu Alam. God knows best.