Despite relative calm in fighting in many parts of Syria, the north-western Idlib province has been under heavy Russian and Syrian government bombardment after a March 2020 ceasefire between Russia and Turkey ended in June. Bashar al-Asad’s regime, backed by Iran and Russia, has been leading a campaign to retake control of Idlib, which is currently in the hands of former Al-Qa'ida affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and other jihadi groups. Turkey, which backs a number of rebel groups, including HTS, has sought to delay the regime offensive by trying to convince these groups to disarm and surrender territory along the strategic M4 and M5 highway to regime forces. This has largely failed and the government offensive continues, despite Russia, Turkey and Iran, partners in the Astana process, claiming to pursue a political solution to the embattled Syrian conflict.
Russia and Iran, both supporters of Asad, have locked horns in the past year, with one result being continuing divisions in the Syrian military and security apparatuses and tensions flaring in the south-western Dera'a province. Compounding the situation are an increasing number of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian personnel and Iranian-sponsored militia in Syria; the most recent airstrikes targeted Iranian and Hizbullah positions in Damascus. A further complicating factor is that Turkey and Russia support opposite sides in the Libyan war, which has, thus, spilled into Syria as each of these two states recruits Syrian fighters to fight with opposing sides in Libyan.
All of these national and international politics and military operations have worsened the lives of ordinary Syrians. Millions of Syrians facing a humanitarian crisis were dealt a immense blow on 12 July when Russia blocked a UN Security Council’s resolution that aimed to open humanitarian border crossings for the flow of aid to areas hard hit by the civil war.
Attempts to revive a political solution
The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in a videoconference on 30 June to discuss the Astana de-escalation process they had agreed on in May 2017 in Kazakhstan. The Astana process has been dormant since the beginning of 2020, having become unworkable when the regime began battling rebel groups in Idlib. The meeting was the first since Turkey had clashed with regime forces in Idlib in March, when a Russian airstrike had killed at least thirty-three Turkish soldiers. The official statement of the virtual summit slammed the USA for seizing oil fields in the northeast; criticised the autonomous northeast region – controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – and labelled them ‘illegal self-rule initiatives’; and condemned US sanctions on the Syrian regime, including the latest Caesar Act sanctions targeting individuals linked to the regime.
Even as the three countries issued a joint statement, political differences between them were stark. Turkey and Russia clashed in February, causing the deaths of over sixty Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Turkey retaliated with ‘Operation Spring Shield’ against Asad’s forces, downing three Syrian fighter jets and killing many soldiers. Russia then accused Turkey of breaching the terms of the September 2018 de-militarisation agreement, and of cooperating with HTS. This Russian statement represented the high point of recent tensions between the two countries, and led to the signing of another ceasefire agreement early March that committed both states to joint patrols alongside the Idlib part of the M4 highway.
Turkey has funded a number of rebel groups, has launched various military campaigns in northern Syria, and has a large military presence in Idlib province, which borders Turkey. The Turkish army has also conducted various cross-border military operations against Kurdish targets in northeast Syria, the one being dubbed ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in October 2019 under a US-brokered agreement that left Turkey controlling a 120-kilometre area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain that had been under the control of the Kurdish-dominated and US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey carries out these operations and maintains a presence in Idlib at the accommodation of Russia, even with Iranian disagreement. Iran disapproves of Turkish military operations in the northeast as well as plans for demilitarisation in Idlib. It accuses Turkey of undermining Syria’s territorial integrity, and of giving control of the area to Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels. Iran’s disagreements with Turkey have become obstacles in the implementation of the Russia-Turkey agreement, especially because Turkey is to be the guarantor of Idlib as an Astana de-escalation zone.
Iran-Turkey disagreements are, however, minute within the larger set of problems with the Astana process. The Syrian regime remains the biggest obstacle to a political solution, including its foot dragging on the UN Geneva process. The government’s focus is on its attempt to retake control of the entire country – with Russian and Iranian assistance, and little attention is paid to participation in the political process, despite occasional Kremlin pressure. The UN-Geneva process is a case in point. The regime’s delegates always stall the process, outrightly rejecting most proposals from other parties, and resisting every attempt to proceed with any of the political processes. In December 2019, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pederson, told the UN Security Council that the second round of talks had failed because Syrian regime officials refused to discuss constitutional reforms. This came after months of UN and Russian efforts to get the Asad government to agree to a list of opposition and civil society participants for the Constitutional Review Committee formed under the auspices of the UN, and supported by Russia and Turkey.
Instead, the regime set its sights on Idlib, the last rebel bastion in the country, under the control of HTS And other rebel groups. Idlib has become the haven for Syrian civilians and rebels who had fled regime bombardment in other, previously rebel-held, areas. It enjoyed relative calm for a while as the regime reconquered other parts of the country. From September 2018, a series of ceasefire agreements were signed between Russia and Turkey. Some three million people are at risk of displacement in Idlib because of continuing violence, and around one million are already housed in refugee camps along the Turkish border.
Although Russia seems to have a great appetite to revive and establish a political process to end the conflict, military operations place this project at risk. The Asad government has won back around seventy per cent of the country, and hopes to regain the remaining thirty per cent over the next months, starting with Idlib. With the Idlib offensive in full swing after a few months of relative calm, the regime is still nowhere near to conquering the province, mainly thanks to Turkish interference. HTS, which controls around sixty per cent of the province, has been cooperating with Turkey in a bid to stop Russian and Syrian army bombardments. In the process, the leader of the former Al-Qa'ida affiliate, Mohammed al-Julani, has rebranded the group and, at Turkish insistence, been suppressing dissenting groups, including those that are close or aligned to Al-Qa'ida.
This strategy attracted the attention of James Jeffrey, the US envoy to Syria, who began to advocate for flexibility towards HTS. Jeffrey praised the group’s claim of patriotism to Syria, and said it did not pose an international threat, but was focused on maintaining its positions in Idlib. HTS’s determination to hold its position and control in the province has resulted in it intensifying its attacks against rival rebel groups. On 22 June, the group arrested senior members of its Shura Council who had defected to two other jihadi factions: Ansar al-Din and Muqatileen al-Ansar. These (and other) groups accuse HTS of cooperating with Turkey, which shares intelligence with the USA on Al-Qa'ida affiliates’ leaders in Idlib. In June, US drone strikes killed two Huras al-Din leaders – Khaled al-Aruri, a Jordanian who had been a member of Al-Qa'ida in Iraq before moving to Syria in 2015, and Abu Adan al-Homsi, who was in charge of logistics for the group.
HTS’s doing Turkey’s bidding was seen starkly in May when the group declared the Turkish Lira as the official currency in Idlib. It intensified after protests by displaced Idlib civilians – said to be mobilised by rival groups – disrupted Russian and Turkish patrols along the M4 highway. A blast on the M4 that targeted Russian and Turkish soldiers early July was blamed on HTS rival Huras al-Din, and HTS subsequently arrested many of its leaders and members. Russia retaliated for the bombing by pounding rebel positions in the Latakia countryside. However, this HTS strategy to make itself more acceptable than other rebel groups has not worked; Russia and the Syrian regime insist that HTS members remain terrorists, and they press forward with attacks on the group despite unsuccessful Turkish attempts to get it to give up its heavy weapons as per the 2018 agreement.
Dera'a a battleground for influence and control
Since entering the Syrian conflict in 2011 to support Asad, Iran continues to be a key player in the Syrian conflict. Iranian-linked militia and Lebanon’s Hizbullah are stationed in various parts of Syria backing the regime, and Asad’s survival until the Russian entry into the war is largely dependent on Iranian and Hizbullah support. Iran also has considerable influence in various sections of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses. Since the 2015 Russian engagement in Syria, however, changes have been made in the Syrian military and security institutions to minimise Iranian influence. This led to tensions within the military and allied militia, and the rivalry has unfolded rapidly in the southwestern province of Dera'a, where a July 2018 Russian-brokered deal saw rebel factions surrender their heavy weapons and the province to the regime, ending a month-long regime bombardment.
Iranian-backed militia in Dera'a are linked to assassinations and kidnappings of opposition faction leaders who had been part of the 2018 deal that ended regime incursion in the province. Syrian army officers linked to Russia have also been implicated in assassinations and attacks on Iranian-linked groups in the province. The Iranian-Russian tensions came to a boil on 4 May 2020 when former rebel leader Qasem al-Subehi, linked to the Russia-backed Fifth Corps, killed nine regime police officers in Muzayrib town. These tensions also saw parliamentary elections disrupted in various parts of Dera'a on Sunday, 19 July.
Former rebels such as al-Subehi are part of a policing force set up by the Russians called the Eight Division, which had been incorporated into the Syrian army’s Fifth Corps. The Eight Division, is led by former Sunna Youth rebel group leader Ahamd al-Oda, polices checkpoints in many areas in Dera'a. It has also been implicated in violence against regime supporters and Iranian-linked generals in Dera'a. On 12 April, two Iranian-linked regime generals – Hamid Makhlouf and Mahmoud Habib – of the Fifty Second Brigade of the Fourth Division were assassinated in an attack that was widely blamed on Russia. Russia, through the Eighth Division, is vying for control and influence in the province against the Fourth Division, headed by Maher al-Asad, the president’s brother. Maher is known to have links with Iran and to coordinate with Iranian paramilitaries and Hizbullah forces in southern Syria.
Together with Maher Fourth Division, Iranian-linked militia have been blamed for over 102 assassinations of former rebel leaders who joined the Fifth Corps. The Fourth Division constantly clashes with military, security and other agencies loyal to Russia. Such clashes and attacks have become a routine occurrence in Dera'a, threatening an escalation of violence in the province where the Syrian uprising had begun in 2011.
In the midst of this ongoing violence, Russia has used the province as a harvesting ground to recruit fighters to be sent to Libya. Russian paramilitary company Wagner has been recruiting young Syrian men to fight in Libya for warlord Khalifa Haftar. In May, tribal leaders in Dera'a organised protests condemning this Russian recruitment of Dera'a’s youth.
Increasing Israeli airstrikes
The increasing number of Israeli airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian and Hizbullah positions has added an additional layer of violence in the ongoing conflict. On Monday, 20 July, Israeli airstrikes violated Lebanese airspace and struck positions in south Damascus, killing Iranian-backed fighters and causing infrastructural damage. These airstrikes were the latest in a series of ongoing Israeli attacks against Iranian and Hizbullah forces. Israel, which previously did not acknowledge carrying out these attacks, has recently been more brazen about admitting to its striking Iranian interests in Syria. The airstrikes represent Israeli acts of war against Iran, and have been sanctioned by the US.
The Israeli airstrikes have also raised questions over the role of Russia, which appears to be turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions. Russia had previously summoned and reprimanded Israeli ambassadors over Israeli airstrikes in Syria. The most recent reprimand was in February 2020, when the Russian defence ministry condemned Israeli airstrikes in Damascus suburbs that nearly hit an airbus carrying 172 passengers. The Russian defence ministry still holds a grudge against Israel after a Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Israeli strikes in September 2018, but was seemingly downplayed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. There seems to be a difference between the Russian defence ministry and the presidency on how to address Israeli operations in Syria.
Although the occasional Russian rebuke gets attention, this does not deter Israel, suggesting the Russian criticism is merely performative. This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that Russian complaints are few, and only for specific cases rather than against the overall Israeli series of attacks. Israel strikes in Syria despite Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile defence systems deployed in Syria in February 2019. The non-effectiveness (or non-activation) of the Russian missile defence systems is, at best, because of a lack of effective training of Syrian military personnel. However, there have also been reports that Russia had not given the Syrians the control codes to the systems, which prevents them from detecting the Israeli F-16s, effectively making Russia complicit in the Israeli attacks.
Worsening humanitarian situation and Russian interference
Amid increasing pressure from the Russian-led offensive on the embattled Idlib province, millions of displaced Syrians refugees are stuck in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps inside the country. The face dire humanitarian conditions, which prompted the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 2533 on 11 July to resume its mandate to deliver aid to the country. The resolution came after Russia and China vetoed an earlier proposal aimed at keeping open two border crossings that channel aid from Turkey to Idlib. The UNSC finally resolved to allow the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing point for one year, but close the border crossing at Bab al-Salam, both in Idlib.
The closure of the Yaroubia crossing from Iraq prevents the delivery of medical supplies from various aid agencies, including the UN, into the Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syrian region. The Jordanian Nasib Border crossing has similarly been closed; it had functioned as a lifeline for refugees mainly stranded at the Rukban refugee camp in southern Syria. The closures of these crossings will ensure the that the distribution of aid will be controlled by the Syrian regime, thus making it difficult for opposition groups to continue controlling territory. The UN has warned that humanitarian conditions are worsening because of the closure of these crossings, especially as the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic, which has also gripped Syria’s northern provinces.
Blocking the original resolution was also Russia’s attempt to give the regime access to resources as the government battles a weak economy and falling currency prices. In June, the USA announced economic and travel sanctions on Asad and members of his inner political circle, including family members, putting further pressure on the already-struggling government. Named the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, it allows the administration of US president Donald Trump to name and sanction thirty-nine individuals, companies and cross-border networks that channel money into Syria. The sanctions have added another layer of strain on the cash-strapped Syrian government as deepening rifts within Asad’s family expose worsen economic problems. Asad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, once a leading businessperson in the Syrian economy and fervent financial backer of Asad, has been confined to his residence after the state seized most of his business assets. Makhlouf’s Syriatel company was targeted amid rumours that Asad’s wife Asma was looking to set up a rival telecommunications company. The assets of other businesspeople and political figures have since also been seized by the government in a bid to replenish the state’s coffers.
Fragile situation in northeast Syria
The predominantly Kurdish region of northeast Syria has been in a fragile political situation after the Turks launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in October 2019. On 1 June, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – whose military wing, the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), leads the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – announced progress on reconciliation talks with the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). The rival parties began reconciliation talks in November 2019, following the end of the Turkish offensive in the northeast. The SNC is based in Turkey and one of its members, the Kurdish National Council, is the only Kurdish faction at the UN Geneva talks.
Kurdish issues in Syria have been seized upon by the French government, which currently has tense diplomatic relations with Turkey over Ankara’s involvement in the Libyan conflict and Turkish naval manoeuvres in the Mediterranean. In May this year, French officials secretly met with the parties that form the Kurdish National Alliance (HNKS) and the PYD in a move seen as a direct provocation to Turkey. Turkey considers the SDF and PYD as affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is in a state of war with and outlawed in Turkey.
The 30 June Astana meeting between Russia, Turkey and Iran revived a political process that seemed to have reached an untimely end because of political problems between the leaders of the process. Russia continues complicated bilateral relations separately with Turkey and Iran pertaining to the Syrian conflict, thus putting the Astana process in a never-ending quagmire. The regime’s offensive in Idlib supported by Russia ended a ceasefire agreement signed between Turkey and Russia in March, compounding an already-alarming humanitarian crisis for three million Syrians displaced in the province. This has put the Turkish-Russian relationship in a precarious position in Idlib as rebels continue to fight against the regime and Russia. Iran, which also supports the regime’s Idlib offensive is looking to counter increasing Israeli attacks against its positions inside Syria. Although the recent Astana meeting addressed these issues, it is yet to translate to tangible results on the ground. Meanwhile, boiling tensions in Dera'a remain unresolved, threatening renewed violence. Russia’s bid to restore territorial control to the Syrian regime saw it force the closure of two UN humanitarian aid crossings, leaving open only the Bab al-Hawa crossing in the northwest. This puts a strain on an already-struggling Syrian population because of the failing economy and US sanctions.