Syria Weekly: Regime advance in Idlib threatens civilian genocide
Rebel lines in northwestern Syria are on the verge of collapse, threatening the fall of the whole of the opposition province of Idlib, analysts believe.
As regime fighters capture Khan Sheikhoun - the site of a 2017 chemical massacre - their continued advance in northern Hama and southern Idlib has sparked panic in the province, where close to a million people have been displaced.
Analysts have told The New Arab that the last rebel stronghold could fall to Bashar al-Assad within a couple of weeks, as exhausted opposition fighters attempt to hold the frontlines but struggle to cope with new tactics employed by the regime amid a shortage of supplies and reinforcements.
If the regime capture Idlib, it could lead to one of the biggest bloodbaths in the eight-year Syria war. Furthermore, with the Turkish border closed, this means civilians could be left to a harrowing fate, opposition officials have said.
|If the regime capture Idlib, it could lead to one of the biggest bloodbaths in the eight-year Syria war|
Russian-backed Syrian regime forces have switched tactics after a ground offensive in northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces, which began in April, stalled.
Russian airstrikes had been focused on civilian infrastructure across northwest Syria, leading to hundreds of civilian dead and the destruction of at least 25 medical centres.
With a second phase in the assault beginning around two-weeks ago, aerial firepower and shelling has been concentrated on a small section of the frontline held by HTS outside Khan Sheikhoun, a town which fell this week.
"The regime has concentrated its firepower on a narrow section of the frontline held by HTS near Khan Sheikhoun, and have broken through. Attacking this section has been a major part in the regime's recent success," Tom Cooper, an Austria-based military analyst who has been closely following the Syria war, told The New Arab.
"For all its pride and its reputation as a hardened fighting force and its links to al-Qaeda, HTS are the weakest link in the opposition frontlines. The National Liberation Front [NLF] - sad remnants of what was once the Free Syrian Army - are the only side with military commanders who know how to fight the regime offensive but they are exhausted and lacking in military supplies."
HTS - including the former al-Nusra Front outfit - played a key role in the 2015 capture of Idlib province. That was before the intervention of Russia who not only battered civilian infrastructure but also rebel supply posts, something that proved disastrous for opponents of the Assad regime, in particular the Free Syrian Army.
Holding the lines
The NLF in Idlib have maintained a professional force that has until now been successful in holding off regime attempts to take Idlib. Heavy shelling of the rebel frontlines early on in the regime campaign forced fighters to retreat to a second line of defence.
Once the bombardment ended and regime fighters moved into the former rebel-held villages, opposition fighters counterattacked and routed the attackers, the military analyst said.
|It is definitely going to be cataclysmic for civilians with tens of thousands fleeing towards the Turkish border.
- Tom Cooper, military analyst
This has been key to the opposition's successful defence of Idlib, but HTS reliance on just one line of defence around Khan Sheikhoun has meant their withdrawal from the frontlines which has been subjected to intense Russian bombardment, has opened up the area to regime forces.
HTS takeover of much of the Idlib province, forcing out many opposition factions, has also played a role in the recent losses, analysts believe.
The regime advance is disastrous for Idlib, with around 500,000 people forced to flee the shelling and bombing of villages in southern Idlib and northern Hama.
The continuation of the regime's ruthless campaign could result in many more people uprooted or killed. "It is definitely going to be cataclysmic for civilians with tens of thousands fleeing towards the Turkish border," Cooper added.
Signs what could happen to the civilian population of Idlib can be seen in the villages and towns recently recaptured by the regime.
|Footage has shown pro-Assad fighters looting abandoned homes, loading up pick-up trucks with washing machines, furniture and metal fittings, something familiar to other regime assaults in Aleppo and elsewhere|
Footage has shown pro-Assad fighters looting abandoned homes, loading up pick-up trucks with washing machines, furniture and metal fittings, something familiar to other regime assaults in Aleppo and elsewhere.
Despite the much touted role of the Syrian regime's so-called "crack" Tiger Forces in the campaign, analysts believe their reputation far exceeds their capabilities, with looting and harassing locals in captured territories being their main duties.
"Troops from this unit serve merely as a body controlling the loyalty of diverse militias the Russians have re-grouped into the new 'Syrian Arab Army'. Instead of leading the assault, they're following the forward troops and excel in looting," Cooper said.
"The actual spearhead of the latest offensive is Maher al-Assad's 4th Division.
This is largely consisting of non-Syrian fighters, brought to the country by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps)… they were declared members of the Syrian armed forces, even granted citizenship."
Some reinforcements from Turkish-backed opposition divisions have made their way to the Idlib frontlines to bolster the defences but there are questions whether the numbers - believed to be around 1,000 to 2,000 troops - are sufficient to hold off the advance.
Dima Moussa, vice-president for the Syrian National Coalition, told The New Arab that despite the recent losses, the opposition are determined to fight and that an increase in Turkish support has had a positive affect.
"What the regime and its allies - specifically Russia - had not counted on is the resilience of the much less equipped (rebel) factions in the area. The main factor in this is the understanding that this is the major stronghold of the opposition, so it truly is a do-or-die situation," Moussa said.
"Support by Turkey and other definitely was an additional factor that also had a positive impact in this resilience. Some limited reinforcements - from factions based in other areas - did arrive as well, when possible."
The regime offensive has seen Turkish observation posts in Hama surrounded by regime forces along with strikes close to Ankara troops with Turkey facing criticism for not acting more forcibly against Russia, which is leading the military campaign.
|Assad said that the war he's carrying out is to achieve a healthier Syrian society and one that is more homogenous.
- Dima Moussa, vice-president Syrian National Coalition
Moussa said that the latest assault is another violation of last year's Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey, which enacted a ceasefire in southern Idlib region. The best solution would be a return to the status quo and the implementation of the demilitarised zone, which brought some stability for both sides.
"[The regime] operation in northwest Syria aims to undermine the implementation of the Sochi MOU [memorandum of understanding] signed last September. If that were to be implemented and its articles respected there is actually a chance to rid this area (de-escalation zone) of radical elements, something that can only be worked on if the area is not targeted of military operations," Moussa added.
"That would mean stability in an area outside regime control, something that would certainly disprove the rhetoric of the regime and its allies."
A recommitment to the Sochi agreement would provide economic benefits for the regime, including the re-opening of highways linking Syria, east to west, north to south.
The signs so far are that the regime is not interested in an end to the fighting and instead pushing for a "military solution" to Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in Syria.
The re-opening of so-called "humanitarian corridors" and immense Russian bombardment of areas close to the frontline have mirrored the steps taken by the regime during the East Aleppo offensive and other campaigns against opposition territories.
"What the regime is doing in Idlib in another episode in a series of operations that started nearly three years ago in Aleppo, and possibly earlier, targeting one-by-one - in a systematic way - areas outside its control," Moussa added.
"The overall aim is to undermine the political process and any efforts that advance or can lead to a political solution."
The humanitarian situation is "bleak to say the least", Moussa said, due to Russia's scorched earth policy, which has seen huge areas of the countryside torched and towns flattened. This was seen when regime troops entered Khan Sheikhoun this week, a town empty of residents and almost completely obliterated after months of bombing.
The aim of the regime's aerial bombardment and shelling is evidently the forced displacement of civilians from towns and villages it aims at capturing, the SNC official said.
"This was evident in the massive amounts of civilian infrastructure destroyed, including hospitals and healthcare facilities, schools, markets, places of worship and others. As a result, close to one million people have been forced to evacuate and displaced to the north, closer to the Turkish border… the aid and support for basic services has significantly decreased when the need became greater.
A similar tactic was used when the regime captured opposition strongholds such as Daraa and Eastern Ghouta last year. The so-called reconciliation agreements with the opposition led to the mass displacement of civilians from areas recaptured by Assad to Idlib.
"These are the people who do not want to live under the control of the Assad regime, mainly because they do not feel safe to do so… Idlib has become a destination for anyone who does not want to live under Assad control. The problem is, there is no other Idlib," Moussa added.
This would mean another exodus of Syrians out of the country if the regime campaign is successful.
"This is a situation that is about to explode at any time. This is not something that bothers Assad and he made it clear that Syrians are not welcome to stay, as is evident from a speech of his in 2017 when he said that the war he's carrying out is to achieve a healthier Syrian society and one that is more homogenous."
With such genocidal language employed by the regime, there can be little doubt that the regime recapture of Idlib would result in some of the bloodiest massacres of civilians in the Syria war.
While the world stands idly by, the regime appears to have a green light to act on this threat.
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Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin