In the Black Sea resort of Sochi on St Valentine's Day, Russia's president Vladimir Putin welcomed the leaders of Turkey and Iran with tea and biscuits. The topic of their conversation? Idlib.
It was not the first time the trio had discussed the Syrian province but Moscow made it clear that it was rapidly running out of patience with its Turkish partner. After eight years of bloodshed that has killed as many as 500,000 people and forced 7.6 million from their homes, Idlib, in the northwest of the country, is the last bastion of opposition – including extremist elements – to Syria president Bashar al-Assad's regime.
It is also the site of a geopolitical showdown – stretching from Ankara to Moscow and Tehran and pulling in Washington – between powerful foreign militaries with opposing ambitions.
For Putin, who supports the Assad regime, and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has backed those seeking to overthrow the Syrian leader, what happens in Idlib could determine the fate of their marriage of convenience, one that has muddled its way through the war, but is now stretched to breaking point.
For the 2.5 million people trapped in the small province, with no way out, the tense Sochi tea date was a matter of life and death. The population of the province has swelled by 600,000 since 2011, with thousands fleeing to Idlib from other opposition areas that have fallen to Russian air strikes and pro-regime forces, a process that has accelerated over the past two years.
Among them is Halima, a 38-year-old women’s rights activist who watched the Sochi talks from her home in Idlib city, just as towns in the south of the province were being shelled by regime forces.
“The fate of the area is to be decided by international agreements,” she says. “[But] these agreements will never be in favour of the Syrian people, who have been suffering all these years. Those countries are only looking after their interests and no one else’s.”
Deal in tatters
Last September, Putin and Erdogan struck an agreement that was credited with averting a Syrian massacre. As part of that deal, Russia agreed to halt a planned assault on Idlib by Syrian forces that had encircled the province. In return, Turkey promised to remove the extremists, who had vowed to make Idlib their last stand, from the area bordering regime-held territory – effectively creating a demilitarised zone.
That deal is now in tatters. In Sochi, Putin berated his Turkish counterpart for not only failing to clear out the militants, but allowing them to grow in number and influence. Meanwhile the ceasefire is fraying: a two-week blitz of shelling and air strikes by pro-regime forces in February killed more than 60 people.
The fragility of the deal reflects the web of alliances between foreign powers operating in Syria – and their contrasting views on the country's future. When Islamic State, the Islamist terror group also known as Isis, was in its ascendancy, foreign powers were able to paper over political differences to fight a common enemy. But as a military victory for Damascus grinds closer, those rivalries are again being exposed.
Tensions have been exacerbated by the US president Donald Trump’s December pledge to withdraw US forces from the northeast of the country.
Erdogan is stalling for time amid the wrangling over the fate of the Kurdish-controlled northeast, and the US presence in the region. But the Kremlin is growing impatient with Ankara’s approach to Idlib. What Moscow intended as a swift and efficient military intervention in September 2015 to prop up Assad and protect Russia’s naval assets on the country’s Mediterranean coast has turned into a 3½-year campaign that has become increasingly unpopular at home.
The Syrian regime says it wants to retake every inch of the country. With Russia’s help it has clawed back probably two-thirds of it. And the rise of jihadi groups in Idlib has given Moscow and Damascus a strong pretext for an assault on the final opposition holdout.
The UN has warned that such an assault could trigger the “worst-scale humanitarian crisis of the 21st century”. With millions of civilians trapped, and aid groups unlikely to be able to operate, the potential for high casualty rates is clear.
After the Sochi talks Putin warned that “the creation of the Idlib ceasefire zone is a temporary measure”.
"Idlib is coming back under the Syrian government's control," warns Mohammed Khair Akkam, a Syrian MP aligned with the regime. "Maybe not tomorrow or the day after, but the battle is drawing nearer."
Rise of Islamic State
World powers have meddled in Syria’s civil war since the first peaceful mass demonstrations broke out in 2011 only to be met by a brutal crackdown. Alongside Gulf and western countries, Turkey provided weapons and funding to rebels fighting to overthrow the autocratic government. Russia stood by its longtime ally, along with Iran.
As the seemingly unstoppable rise of Islamic State by 2015 threatened the entire region, Russia lent its air power to the regime’s campaign against the Islamist group. Yet most of that firepower was turned on opposition rebels, including some backed by Turkey, rather than the black-clad jihadis. Moscow’s intervention was decisive.
Despite backing opposing forces in Syria and having different goals in the country, Russia and Turkey have managed to forge a working alliance on Syria over the past two years, supported by a broader strategic and economic relationship between Putin and Erdogan that both are keen to protect, amid souring ties with western countries.
In Idlib that alliance is breaking down. Turkey is desperate to avoid a military onslaught that could drive hundreds of thousands of refugees towards its border. Yet Russia wants the extremists eliminated and the war brought to an end. And Syria’s regime wants to permanently subdue any remaining rebels.
“We are getting impatient ... We want to continue to be partners with Turkey. On one hand we don’t want to jeopardise our partnership,” says one senior Kremlin official. “But on the other we don’t want Turkey to jeopardise it through their inaction.”
Turkey insists it is doing its best to uphold the agreement. “Both [sides] want the Idlib memorandum to remain in place,” says a senior Turkish official. Ankara argues that regime attacks on civilians in Idlib show that there are violations on both sides.
"While Moscow is clearly disappointed, it does not despair of the situation," says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "I don't think that Moscow has ever deluded itself about the unity of the coalition ... In a way, it is a miracle that Russia has managed to keep the coalition functioning."
The prospect of Russia running out of patience and bowing to the Syrian army’s demand for a full-on assault terrifies those trapped in Idlib.
Raya, who manages a women’s organisation, estimates that up to 80 per cent of people in the province “are wanted by the regime ... so you can imagine the size of the catastrophe and the bloodshed if the regime enters this area”.
Nowhere to run
Government forces have been accused of human rights abuses from imprisoning and torturing opposition activists to chemical attacks on their own citizens. “We need assurances from guarantor countries that the regime will never enter,” says Raya.
But, says one western diplomat in Beirut, "Russia can't [physically] stop Assad going into Idlib". Damascus will, however, need Russia's air support for any offensive, giving Moscow leverage.
For those trapped inside, there is almost nowhere left to run. To the west, Idlib shares a 100km border with Turkey, which Ankara has closed and fortified. To the east lies Syria's second city, Aleppo, held by the regime. Turkish proxies control the land at its northern tip, the only escape route.
Erdogan already faces strong public discontent at home over the presence of 3.6 million Syrian refugees that the country has accepted. Opening the gates to more could fuel social unrest.
Halima, not her real name, survived the Russian and regime bombing of Ghouta, a former rebel stronghold outside of Damascus that was devastated in a three-month battle last year that cost the activist her home and the women’s centres she operated, and killed her brother and some of her students.
She left on the last bus convoy out of Ghouta and headed for Idlib, a last resort for many activists. For her the consequence of diplomatic failure are all too real. “I don’t want to relive the same thing here,” she says.
But the province is no haven. Idlib has Syria’s worst levels of housing deprivation. About 275,000 people are living in camps and rickety shelters, and there are just 1,092 hospital beds for a population of 2.5 million. Cut off from the national grid, many residents rely on solar power. Jobs are scarce. Some 40 per cent of Idlib’s children have no schooling.
Until recently, a collection of hardcore rebel groups jostled for power. A senior US general in September estimated that as many as 30,000 militants were active in the province. And foreign diplomats worry that if they evade capture they could return to wreak havoc in the west.
As part of the September agreement between Moscow and Ankara, Turkey was tasked with moving the most extreme jihadist groups and their heavy weapons away from the border between Idlib and government-held Syria. But the opposite has happened.
In January one group pushed its rivals aside to emerge dominant – Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Sunni extremist faction which grew out of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and is designated as a terrorist group.
Tolls and fees
Moscow blames Turkey, and says HTS is using Idlib as a base to launch attacks against its forces. But Saban Kardas, a professor of international relations at TOBB-ETU university in Ankara, likens the task of controlling the group to "mission impossible" for Ankara – a view echoed by western officials.
“All the people [Turkey] can control are in the north-east of Syria,” says the western diplomat in Beirut, referring to Ankara’s influence through proxy rebel groups, some of whom fought in two Turkish military assaults on the country’s north in 2016 and 2018. “The ones they can’t control are in Idlib”.
Through administrative organisations, HTS has harnessed Idlib’s economy, extracting tolls and fees on border crossings and controlling traffic between Idlib and Turkey. It has imposed its own interpretation of Islamic law and been accused of imprisoning and torturing its opponents.
Turkey is also being criticised for not protecting Idlib from aerial bombardment by Syrian forces. “People are starting to hate Turkey for not defending them in the face of these attacks,” says Abdulaziz Ketaz, an activist in one of the Idlib towns. “There is also a growing resentment against HTS, as it is responsible for this debacle.”
Despite the tensions over Idlib, Russia is keen to maintain close relations with Turkey, whose 910km-long border with Syria makes it a vital partner in reconstruction efforts and the resumption of trade flows. After its military incursions, Turkey controls two swaths of northern Syria that pose an obstacle to Damascus’s wish to reclaim all of Syria.
This stretched diplomacy brings potential disaster ever closer.
“It is not that we still have a problem in Idlib,” says the Russian official, “it is that the problem in Idlib is growing day by day ... [and] there is a certain limit of patience. [Putin] is thinking about that every day. It is a big problem.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019