Syrian army and jihadi conflict in Idlib on UN meeting agenda

UN agencies say 150,000 civilians displaced in Islamic State and Tahrir al-Sham enclave

Syrians drive with their belongings along the main Damascus-Aleppo highway near the town of Saraqib in Syria’s jihadist-held Idlib province on May 9th, 2019. Photograph: Anas al-Dyab

Syrians drive with their belongings along the main Damascus-Aleppo highway near the town of Saraqib in Syria’s jihadist-held Idlib province on May 9th, 2019. Photograph: Anas al-Dyab

 

The UN Security Council is set to meet on Friday to discuss fighting between the Syrian army, which is backed by Russian air cover, and jihadis based in and around the country’s northwestern Idlib province.

This week, the Syrian army has captured the strategic town of Qalaat al-Madiq and the village of Kafr Nbouda and is moving eastwards towards the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which straddles the main highway connecting Damascus with Homs and Aleppo.

Under the “deconfliction” agreement reached on September 17th, 2018, between Moscow and Ankara, this road and a second highway connecting Aleppo with the coastal city of Latakia were to open last December. However, Turkey, its surrogates and al-Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and jihadi allies have refused to abide by the terms of the deal.

These also include observing a ceasefire and carrying out the withdrawal of heavy weapons and jihadi fighters from a 15-25km-wide buffer zone surrounding the enclave.

There have been no withdrawals. Fighters continue to mount attacks on the Syrian army posts and civilian areas in neighbouring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces. Fighters based in Qalaat al-Madiq and Kafr Nbouda fire rockets and fly armed drones toward Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Latakia to the south of Idlib.

Turkey’s protection

Tasked with implementing the deal, Turkey was also meant to isolate and disarm Tahrir al-Sham and allied jihadis. Instead, Tahrir al-Sham took over Idlib and formed the Salvation Government which, since January, has administered the area under Turkey’s protection.

Participation by Russian war planes in the offensive, which began on April 30th, demonstrates Moscow’s frustration with Ankara which, apparently, believes it can co-opt Tahrir al-Sham and make Idlib a pro-Turkish bastion.

The Russian-backed Syrian army offensive along the perimeter of Idlib province is not only meant to force a jihadi retreat from territory in adjacent provinces, but also soften up targets deep within Idlib ahead of a phased campaign employing “salami tactics” – slice by slice – to defeat the jihadis.

Aid distribution

UN agencies report that 150,000 civilians have, so far, been displaced by the latest bout of fighting in the enclave, the last bastion of al-Qaeda’s terrible twins: Islamic State and Tahrir al-Sham. Relief workers said its fighters interfere in aid distributions to 2.7 million of the enclave’s three million inhabitants, half of them displaced from other provinces. Most depend on food and medicine imported from Turkey.

Rachel Sider of the Norwegian Refugee Council told the French press agency the “de facto authorities” strive to “tamper with, impede or frustrate the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including by undermining the safety of humanitarian workers”. A plan to provide free flour to bakeries was dropped because the Salvation Government demanded that only its affiliates should receive supplies.

Fighters appropriate food baskets for their own consumption, pass them on to supporters or sell them to civilians with scant resources. This has happened in many frontline areas during the eight-year Syrian conflict but is rampant in Idlib, where Tahrir al-Sham fighters and their partners are fighting for their lives and need the support of civilians.

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