Turkey and the Russia-backed Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad are in a tight jostle for full control of the north-western Syrian province of Idlib. The province—the last of the four de-escalation zones agreed by Turkey, Iran and Russia in 2017, which is yet to be taken over by the Assad government—is important to all the warring actors for diverse and awkward reasons.
For Turkey, Idlib represents its last stronghold in the war in Syria that it has almost lost. Turkey has been a staunch ally of the rebels—read anti-Bashar elements—from the onset of the war nine years ago. Over the years, Turkey has supported and aided the rebel forces, including the Tahrir al-Sham, still the strongest anti-Bashar element in the Idlib region.
While Turkey has watched the fall of the three other de-escalation zones—Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, the Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in Homs province and Deraa and Quneitra provinces in the south—before Syrian aggression with zero effective effort to salvage the situation, it is not in a position to allow the Syrian forces to capture Idlib, because that would mean a total defeat of Turkish interests in the war. This would also mean that Turkey will have little to no role or say in the post-war reconstruction discussions on Syria—and nine years of efforts and investments will end up in vain.
But with the Russians backing the Syrian government, there is not much the Turks can do. The 2015 Russian response to Turkey downing a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian-Turkish border has been a tough lesson for Turkey to digest—Russia banned import of Turkish goods that significantly affected the Turkish economy.
It took a public apology from the Turkish president himself to appease the Kremlin. And over the last couple of years, Turkey has tried to strengthen its ties with Russia, even with regard to Syria: case in point, the Sochi talks late last year where Russia brokered a peace deal between Turkey and the Kurds in the face of Turkish aggression in northeast Syria.
And in the aftermath of the US slapping trade sanctions on Iran last year, Russia is now the main oil and gas supplier for Turkey. Bilateral trade between the key trading partners exceeds USD 25 billion annually.
And the US is yet to clarify its stance on the situation in Syria, leaving Turkey confused.
With the Assad regime's advancement against the Turkish-backed opposing forces in Idlib aided by Russia, Turkey now finds itself in murky waters, unable to decide if it should prioritise its stakes in Syria over its precarious relationship with Russia.
For Russia, the situation is much more lucid and priorities straighter: all out victory for the Syrian government in this war. Since September 2015, the Kremlin has been a staunch supporter of the Assad regime and has backed the Syrian government with its aerial forces even in the most trying situations. With the US missing from the scene, the Syrian government forces dependent on Russia for support, the master of Iranian intrigue abroad, Qassem Soleimani, gone, and the position of Turkey weakened, Russia stands to gain the most from the Syrian government's victory in the civil war.
Bashar al-Assad perhaps has his own agenda in Idlib. Hundreds and thousands of civilians, from various parts of Syria that had been taken over by the Syrian government, who would not compromise with the Assad regime, had been bussed to Idlib, along with all opposition fighters, over the last few years. And Assad might be seeking revenge on them for not being aligned to him. Thus, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian sites in the province. Assad is unable to differentiate between the civilian population of Idlib and the rebel fighters: he sees them all as one and the same—the opposition, his enemies.
The situation is so dire in the province that Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, as quoted by VOA News recently, said regarding the Assad government's approach to the Idlib attack that the presence of rebel fighters in the province "does not justify the indiscriminate bombardment of the civilian population." If anything, the Assad's government's ruthless brutality in Idlib brings into question the intention behind the mass transportation of opposing forces and civilians to Idlib. Perhaps, to use it as a dumping site where all oppositions can be wiped out in one go? Only time will tell.
The three million population of Idlib now face a real and literal existential crisis: with Turkey fortifying its shared border with Syria, especially in the region, the people of Idlib are left with nowhere else to go. If they go towards the Turkish border, they are most likely to be shot; if they stay in Idlib, they are vulnerable to Russian bombardment or attack by the Syrian ground forces.
Although UN estimates suggest that around 800,000 residents of Idlib have been displaced by the Syrian attacks, the people, already internally displaced multiple times, have little to no option to relocate.
Amidst the deafening sound of bombs exploding and smothering the air—with healthcare centres, schools and other public infrastructure destroyed, and most basic utility services inaccessible—the living conditions in Idlib are a nightmare. And with road connectivity being destroyed by Russian bombardment, aid distribution among the helpless civilians has become a challenge.
But in a digitally connected world where news travels as fast as light, would Turkey or Russia, or for that matter Syria, be willing to have innocent blood on their hands?
Thousands of miles apart, in the comforts of our cosy homes, for now, we can only witness the bloodbath that is being unleashed in Idlib, like silent spectators at a macabre movie screening. Only this time, the gore is real.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem