Syrian military begins shelling last insurgent bastion of Idlib

Fears that many thousands of civilians could be displaced in event of devastating battle

Syrians gather at a site of car bomb in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib. Photograph: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

Syrians gather at a site of car bomb in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib. Photograph: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

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The Syrian military has deployed along the borders of al-Qaeda-dominated Idlib province and has begun shelling insurgents’ positions, prompting fears that hundreds of thousands of people could be uprooted.

In a bid to avert a devastating battle, Syrian helicopters have dropped leaflets over Idlib, in the country’s northwest, calling for an end to bloodletting and “reconciliation” with Damascus. Al-Qaeda’s offshoot Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has arrested scores of civilians calling for such an arrangement to be accepted.

A monthly bulletin published by the World Health Organisation and related agencies said that “increased hostilities are expected in the northwest in the coming period [resulting] in displacements from 250,000 to over 700,000 people in Idlib and surrounding areas”.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has vowed to re-establish control of Idlib, the last bastion of the armed opposition. Damascus’s allies Russia and Iran, and local opponent Turkey, have called for restraint.

Russia and Iran could prevent an offensive by refusing to support the Syrian army with air cover and ground troops, or Turkey could intervene militarily to protect insurgent assets. Fearing a humanitarian disaster, UN spokesman Jan Egeland said: “The war cannot be allowed to go to Idlib.”

Due to the thousands of jihadis in Idlib, the Syrian armed forces would have to rely on heavy aerial and artillery bombardment to dislodge fighters in densely populated areas. This could precipitate the flight of civilians to Turkey. Although the UN has asked Ankara to receive refugees, Turkey has prepared to block an exodus and prevent infiltration by armed elements by deploying along the frontier.

Refuge for civilians

After its 2015 conquest by Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), Idlib became a refuge for civilians from conflicted neighbouring areas and a dumping ground for anti-government activists and fighters who refused to lay down their arms and seek amnesty under “reconciliation” deals. They continue to conduct raids outside Idlib and to fly armed drones to strike the Russian air base in Latakia.

The influx has doubled Idlib’s population to 2.5 million. Although it was declared a “deconfliction” or ceasefire zone by Russia, Iran and Turkey, Tahrir al-Sham and Islamic State (Isis) – branded terrorist groups by the UN and excluded from ceasefires – have rejected the truce. The jihadis are determined to preserve their domain, since there is nowhere else they can go in Syria or neighbouring Iraq.

Russia has pressed Turkey – which has set up a dozen military posts around Idlib – to deal with hardcore jihadis. Instead, Ankara has inducted Syrian jihadis into its surrogate Free Syrian Army units and deployed them in the Kurdish district of Afrin and the northern towns of Jarablus and al-Bab, which are held by Turkish forces. These fighters could be used to occupy permanently all or part of Idlib.

No option

In spite of the risks of a humanitarian disaster, bloody battles with jihadis and confrontation with Turkey, Damascus has no option but to recapture Idlib. The government cannot tolerate the presence of thousands of heavily armed fighters in this strategic province.

Idlib cannot warehouse jihadis indefinitely. As long as they are there, they will threaten the north, particularly the coast and nearby Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub. A jihadi base in Idlib menaces both the region and Europe.

Since Syrians form the majority of fighters, Damascus can deal with them by imprisoning commanders and those convicted of criminal behaviour and re-educating foot soldiers. Foreign jihadis, survivors of the 40,000 who fought in Syria and Iraq, remain a major problem as their home countries do not want them back.

Washington has urged governments to repatriate nationals captured during the US-backed liberation of the Syrian city of Raqqa but has succeeded in returning only a couple of dozen. Nothing has been said about repatriating Idlib’s foreign fighters.

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