Tables have turned in Idlib
A recent column which ran the headline “What’s happening in Idlib?” published last Thursday, was about conflicts recommencing between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the extension of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda, and armed opposition groups which Turkey supports after a relative period of tranquility.
The conflict that had broken out in Idlib on the first day of 2019 continued throughout the past week. Yesterday, agencies received news about a cease-fire agreement that was signed between the opposition groups and the HTS.
Now, we can search for an answer to the question “What’s happening in Idlib?”
The first observation to be made is the fact that the HTS has outmaneuvered the opposition groups in the field, militarily, and that it extended its domain by taking control of many locations. The armed opposition suffered from a serious land loss during these conflicts.
In today’s column, we are including two Idlib maps, one dated Sept. 9, 2018 and the other one dated Jan. 9, 2019, from the news and analysis portal suriyegundemi.com, which is known for its expertise on Syria. When we compare these maps, we can see how the HTS has expanded.
The first region that one should pay attention to is the region covering Idlib’s northeast. On the Sept. 9 map, the area painted in blue in northeastern Idlib shows the areas the opposition had control over. Whereas on the map of Jan. 9, we see that the 25- to 30-kilometer-wide blue area has majorly turned gray, meaning it has become a part of the HTS’ domain. The HTS took this area from the Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement.
The second one is the region along the Gab plains, adjacent to the regime’s zone in the southwest. The region, with a 40-kilometer depth and 20-kilometer width, has predominately transferred to the HTS from the opposition organization Ahrar al-Sham. The third region lost by the opposition is a corridor that covers 30 kilometers south, just below Idlib’s center, from Saraqib to Carcanaz.
In light of the recent gains, the HTS has made itself the principal actor in Idlib, where it had already been strong, and introduced itself as more powerful within the dynamics.
It is an undeniable fact that this development had caused distress in September to the implementation of the Sochi Agreement on the establishment of a disarmament region in Idlib, between Turkey and Russia.
Within the scope of the agreement, the aim of eliminating all terrorist groups from the disarmament zone that is to be established along the line separating Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition’s region has remained in vain with the recent incidents. Moreover, another article of the Sochi Agreement stipulated securing the M4 and M5 highways, connecting Aleppo to Latakia and Damascus, respectively, and opening both to traffic by the end of the year. This goal, too, failed to be implemented.
Having said that, these difficulties do not fulfill the general needs of Idlib. Despite everything, a significant function of the Sochi Agreement is averting a gory war and humanitarian disaster by preventing the Syrian regime from entering Idlib, where around three million people live. No matter what the developments on the field are, the need to preclude such a calamity is still valid today.
Russia and Turkey need to seriously assess the new reality of Idlib. The dialogue between the two countries has gained a critical significance in this sense.
In the newly captured regions of the HTS, there are some observation points of the Turkish Armed Forces in Idlib. Some of the recent conflicts had occurred near or beside the military’s observation points. An important point here is that the HTS has avoided taking any steps in Idlib that will confront Turkey. Likewise, during the preceding period, the Cilveligözü border, allowing passage from Hatay to Idlib, and the Bab al-Hawa border in front of it remained intact from the tensions in the field.
An important result of the recent development is that Turkey had to look out to the west of the Syrian border and pay attention to Idlib, while preparing to gravitate towards the east of Manbij and Euphrates.