Deadline Passes For Syria’s Idlib Buffer Without Fighters Leaving

On Monday, October 15th, the deadline for militant groups to move out of the rebel-controlled area of Idlib, Syria passed. The radical military groups there did not move, and the Russian-Turkish deal that created this deadline was disregarded. This deal was implemented in order to weaken the offensive fronts of the radical groups located in the northwestern region of Idlib. The previous condition of the deal, that stated that weapons had to be withdrawn from the area by October 10th, had not found success. It was first believed that the rebels had withdrawn all of their heavy weaponry, but those that had visited the site to ensure that the deal was followed through with were met with “deadly mortar rounds” and “heavy mortar shells” that killed two Syrian soldiers, as recounted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). In an interview with Channel News Asia, the SOHR also recalled that they did not see any militants leaving the area; more evidence that the second part of the deal was not respected. The inability of this Russian-Turkish deal to successfully remove the military power of the rebel groups there hints at rising dissent from opposing rebel groups.

Rebels seem to be holding strong against the pressures from the Syrian government and show no signs of backing down. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance headed by an Al-Qaeda affiliate, stated in an interview with Aljazeera that, “We have not abandoned our choice of jihad and fighting towards implementing our blessed revolution.” Instead of respect for the Syrian government, the HTS has shown allegiance to the Turkish government for their help in maintaining rebel control over Idlib. Towards the Syrian government, the rebel groups stated in an interview with Aljazeera that they “warn of the deceitfulness of the Russian occupier” and the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad’s ally.

The dissent of these rebel groups from the demands of the Syrian government could have serious repercussions. Before the deal was put into action, The United Nations warned that if the deal was not recognized, there could be a humanitarian crisis in the area and large amounts of social upheaval and bloodshed. The head of the SOHR stated that “the Jihadists not withdrawing gives the regime and Russia an excuse to carry out a military operation at least within the demilitarized zone.” Nawar Oliver, an expert on the current Syrian civil war told the Turkey-based Omran Centre that the deal is the ultimate “test” of the HTS. Oliver states that the situation could go one of two ways, “either Turkey and the NFL (National Liberation Front) launch military action against HTS, or Russia will seize the opportunity with the support of the regime and its allies to enter the Idlib.”

A militaristic reaction is already underway from the Syrian government. On Friday, October 12th, the Syrian government sent out a warning message to the residents in the area that read, “get away from the fighters, their fate is sealed and near.” The threat of conflict between the rebels and the Syrian government is nothing new for the residents of Idlib. Three million people live there now, but hundreds of thousands of them have already been forced to leave the area as a result of the seven-year war in Syria.

The current civil war in Syria has been going on since 2011 and began as a number of peaceful protests against the government. These protests were a result of President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to remain in power at almost any cost, including the use of bombs and chemical weapons. The rebel groups that occupy Idlib have mostly formed from the presence of a shared goal: to overthrow the president. The rebel’s attempts to remove the president from power and the involvement of other foreign nations is what has made this war so deadly. Russia is a close ally of the president and if he were to be overthrown Russia would lose their foothold in the Middle East, which is why they were quick to support the new Russian-Turkish deal.

Rebels are unwilling to give up their power in Idlib because the prospect of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad is becoming increasingly improbable. Although the U.S. has offered to help Kurdish groups in the northeast, they are hesitant to help the rebels, because it could lead the war to occur on an even larger scale. For the Syrian war to come to an end, much work still has to be done. President Bashar al-Assad needs to stop violently controlling his people, and the rebels need to refrain from increasing militaristic tension in Idlib by peacefully approaching a solution rather than waiting it out and using weaponry.

Isabel Slingerland