Syria: How Russia uses 'de-escalation agreements' to destroy cities
Scores of people have been killed since December 15 and the UN says that 235,000 people have fled the area since that date.
An entire city, Maarat al-Numan, has effectively been destroyed by Russian bombardment, and yet this escalation came just a few days after the conclusion of "de-escalation" talks attended by representatives of the regime, the opposition, Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
Maarat al-Numan, the main city in the south of the province, is now a ruin. It once hosted a population of 110,000, many of them displaced from other parts of Syria. Today it is nearly empty.
Recently, Russian and regime aircraft were circling the destroyed city and targeting any vehicle that attempted to evacuate the remaining civilians. While there has been a relative lull in bombing recently, there is also no ceasefire agreement and deadly airstrikes can resume at any time.
Aid workers have told The New Arab that civilians were trying to leave in any way they could and that the situation was catastrophic.
Fouad Sayed Issa of the Syrian charity Violet Organization said, "People fled Maaret al-Numan on foot, in private cars, or in cars that charities sent. They took shelter in mosques in Idlib city, Sarmada, and other cities. We will try to find houses or camps where they can settle more permanently but what's happening is a real catastrophe, 70,000 people have been displaced [from this city] in just a few days. Only 50 to 100 families are left."
Another aid worker from the charity Kids' Paradise, who preferred to remain anonymous said, "There are still thousands of people in southern Idlib who are waiting for the bombardment and shelling to stop and find any way to flee. Regime forces now control many areas around Maaret al-Numan and there are no ways to escape except through the mountains on the western side.
"Many families split up, sending their women and children alone, while adult men and the elderly stayed behind. There is no more transport because fuel is limited and the roads are no longer safe.
"This is one of the most difficult forced displacements we've seen, as it is happening during the harsh winter. People are in urgent need of huge humanitarian support – shelter, health, winter kits, food and nonfood items."
Russia and the regime's airstrikes have, unsurprisingly, been conducted with total impunity and disregard for human life. Their bombing campaign in Syria has destroyed hundreds of hospitals in Syria since 2015 and on Christmas Eve, Russia bombed a school sheltering refugees, killing eight people including five children. Incidents like this and much worse have become routine during Syria's conflict, which began in 2011, and most of the world stopped paying attention a long time ago.
"The goal of this war is not only to control more areas but also to kill as many civilians, who are basically on the side of the rebels, as possible," the anonymous aid worker added.
The Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, have documented the deaths of at least 160 people, including 40 children, since the beginning of December.
Russia has managed to stop the UN providing any further aid to Idlib after January 2020, by using its Security Council veto, in a move which will affect four million Syrians and make life even worse for hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
The aim of its current assault on Idlib is believed to be control of the strategic M5 highway, which passes through the rebel-held province and links Damascus to Aleppo.
Ever since the fall of east Aleppo, the last major urban area in Syria held by anti-Assad rebels, at the end of 2016, Russia and the Syrian regime has been gradually encroaching on opposition held areas of Syria.
An important part of their strategy has been to enter into deceptive "de-escalation" and ceasefire agreements with the opposition who, given their military weakness, have little choice but to agree to them.
These agreements can, and have been, broken at will by the regime and Russia because no other world power is willing or able to challenge their actions in Syria.
The first ceasefire agreement after the fall of Aleppo, signed in the Kazakh capital Astana (now known as Nursultan) guaranteed that fighting would end in four rebel-held areas of Syria; Ghouta, Daraa, and northern Homs province as well as northwestern Syria. So far there have been 14 rounds of negotiation in the Kazakh capital between the opposition, the regime, Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
However, by July 2018, the regime and Russia had overrun the first three of the areas after protracted sieges and bombing campaigns.
|Russia and the regime's airstrikes have, unsurprisingly, been conducted with total impunity and disregard for human life|
The last rebel-held area was northwestern Syria – it included Idlib as well as neighbouring rebel-held areas of Aleppo and Hama provinces. It was larger and more populous than the other rebel-held areas and it was clear that it would not be as easy for the regime to take over as the other three areas.
Approximately 3.5 million people live in rebel-held northwestern Syria province, about half of them displaced from other parts of Syria. In September 2018 a new de-escalation agreement guaranteed by Turkey, Russia, and Iran, was signed creating a demilitarised zone around the rebel-held province, where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a hardline Islamist group previously affiliated to al-Qaeda was the strongest group.
It didn't take long for this agreement to show how worthless it was. From April to September 2019, Russia and the regime resumed their indiscriminate bombing campaign against Idlib, killing over 1,300 civilians, forcing 500,000 from their homes, and damaging or destroying dozens of hospitals in deliberate airstrikes.
On the ground, Russia and the regime captured all the rebel-held areas in northern Hama province as well as Khan Sheikhoun, previously the site of a chemical weapons massacre, in southern Idlib province.
Russia announced a ceasefire in September and for two months, the Idlib province was relatively quiet. But bombing resumed in November, shortly after Turkey and Russia signed an agreement guaranteeing that Kurdish forces would withdraw from areas near the Turkish-Syrian border in northeastern Syria.
Kellie Strom, the editor of the journal Syria Notes, told The New Arab, "The assault is the continuation of the same piece by piece forced displacement strategy by Putin and Assad that we saw from 2016 on, from Damascus to Aleppo to Daraa to Idlib. This targeting of civilians by Putin and Assad will continue as long as there are no concrete measures to stop them."
Negotiations followed by brutal bombardment
The bombing became far more brutal after December 15, shortly after the 14th round of negotiations at Astana concluded.
The link between these negotiations, the intensification of the bombing in Idlib and the destruction of Maarat al-Numan is interesting and illustrative. The latest round of Astana negotiations, which theoretically are about "de-escalation", ended without any clear agreement on a ceasefire. In fact a joint statement issued when the talks ended stressed the need for the "elimination" of the Islamic State group [IS] and HTS.
HTS dominate Idlib province and have imposed repressive rule over many parts of it. Their extreme Islamist ideology and previous connections to al-Qaeda mean that they have been designated as a terrorist group by most of the international community, including the US, the UK, and the Turkey. Russia uses HTS's presence in Idlib as a justification for their bombing but the Islamist group's control of Idlib is incomplete – other rebel groups such as the National Liberation Front are also present – and Russian airstrikes target civilian facilities and infrastructure rather than HTS positions.
Sources close to the Syrian opposition previously told The New Arab that opposition negotiators at Astana had rejected a Russian proposal whereby the opposition would cede all the areas they held west of the city of Ariha to regime control in return for a Russian guarantee that Maaret al-Numan, and the southern Idlib province would be left alone.
The opposition negotiators said that this would allow the regime to grab a huge portion of opposition-held territory, and that there was no real guarantee that southern Idlib would be left alone, given Russia's previous violations of agreements.
Mohammed al-Sermini, one of the negotiators who attended the Astana meeting, told The New Arab that Russia's latest escalation in Idlib was also about economics.
"Russia has turned towards a military solution in order to open the cross-border roads and the border crossings to the regime, and end the regime's economic isolation, giving reconstruction companies an incentive to enter Syria and bust sanctions. Expanding the regime's scope of control and depriving the opposition of major cities, roads, and border crossing makes the opposition's position in any negotiations weak and forces it to give major concessions."
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As the Russian offensive continues, the Assad regime has been growing in confidence and making increasingly belligerent statements.
Speaking from Moscow, the regime's foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, said on December 24 that previous Turkish-Russian understandings regarding Idlib – in a reference to the September 2018 agreement – had failed and that "a military solution was the only alternative".
It is the civilians of Idlib who will pay the price for the regime's "military solution" and its access to the highways and border crossings of Idlib.
The 235,000 displaced people join hundreds of thousands displaced from previous rounds of fighting, and many of them will find no shelter as a harsh winter sets in. Humanitarian agencies are already stretched to breaking point and neighbouring Turkey has said it cannot take in any more refugees.
It is very clear to the regime and Russia, however, that there will be no price to pay for their killing and displacement of civilians as the world continues to turn its back on Syria.
Amr Salahi is a journalist at The New Arab.