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Offensive against Idlib ignores fate of 3 million civilians dwelling on battleground

May 16,2019 - Last updated at May 16,2019

The repeatedly postponed Syrian government offensive against insurgent-held Idlib has begun, despite pleas from the UN, the West and humanitarian relief agencies that 3 million civilians dwell on the battleground. The campaign was delayed because last September, Moscow and Ankara elaborated terms for Idlib to remain a "de-confliction" zone and stave off a frontal attack.

A plan for four "de-confliction" or "de-escalation" zones was declared two years ago during talks between Russia, Iran and Turkey in Kazakhstan. The demarcation of the zones was completed that June and a period of six months was fixed for the duration of ceasefires covering the zones. These were centred around Damascus, Homs, Deraa and Quneitra and Idlib, including adjoining territory in Hama, north Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

The logic of creating these zones was to encourage warring sides to reach a country-wide ceasefire and engage in talks on a political settlement. Neither happened. Consequently, during 2018, the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies systematically took over the Homs, Damascus and Daraa zones after fierce fighting and a certain amount of hand-wringing among Western politicians and media folk.

Idlib remained a special case for two reasons. Under the original "de-confliction" plan, Turkey was meant to ensure insurgents within the enclave kept the ceasefire and to separate and isolate radicals from groups under its wing.

Under the elaborated Idlib deal, Turkey was also required to meet additional conditions. These included the forceful imposition of a ceasefire, and withdrawal of heavy weapons and Al Qaeda-linked fighters from a 15-25 wide buffer zone surrounding the Idlib enclave. The highways connecting Aleppo with Damascus and the coastal city of Latakia were to open last December.

Turkey did not carry out any of its obligations. While Turkish troops monitored developments from posts on the edge of the Idlib zone, radicals of Al Qaeda's Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, which are far stronger than Turkey's surrogates, expanded their area of control from 60-100 per cent of the zone and established a Salvation Government to administer it. Tahrir Al Sham and other groups refused to withdraw heavy weapons and fighters from the buffer zone and continued to shell, mortar and rocket Syrian government positions and civilian areas outside the zone. Fighters based in villages along the southern border with Latakia province targeted with rockets and armed drones Russia's Hmeimim air base.

Frustrated over Turkey's duplicity, Russia decided at the end of last month to give the Syrian army and its allies air cover for a phased campaign to defeat Tahrir Al Sham, its radical allies and Turkey's surrogates, and recapture Idlib and neighbouring tracts of territory. So far, the offensive has focused on the edges of the zone with the aim of tightening the circle around the insurgents. There have also been Russian and Syrian bombing raids on the interior of the province.

Last week, the Syrian army captured the strategic town of Qalaat Al Madiq with its medieval fortress and the village of Kafr Nbouda. On Monday, the army swept into half a dozen villages near Kafr Nbouda. The army is expected to move toward the town of Khan Shaikhoun, which straddles the main highway connecting Damascus with Homs and Aleppo, a highway that was meant to be freed under the September "de-confliction" deal.

Tahrir Al Sham commander Abu Mohammad Al Jolani called on "anybody" to "take up weapons" to defend Idlib from Syria and Russian attack. He said attacks on the zone have finished off all agreements and attempts at negotiations between insurgents and the government. However, as spawn of Al Qaeda, Tahrir Al Sham, like its twin Daesh, were never meant to benefit from ceasefires or to take part in negotiations. Tahrir Al Sham, like Daesh, is meant to be extinguished.

UN agencies report 180,000 civilians have been displaced by the ongoing violence in Idlib, the last bastion of Al Qaeda's rival twins. As could be expected, France, Germany and Britain have called for an end to the fighting between the army and Tahrir Al Sham and "other terrorist groups", arguing that their presence is of a matter of "grave concern". They insisted, however, that the ongoing campaign is "not about fighting terrorism" but about "reconquest" by the government. In fact, the long-expected offensive is about both. Damascus and its Russian and Iranian allies are determined to root out the "terrorist" groups, which continue to base themselves in Syria and insist on restoring to government control all Syrian territory. They understand that Al Qaeda cannot be permitted to have a major territorial base in Syria any more than Daesh could.

By calling for an end to the offensive, these three powers are protecting groups branded as "terrorist" by the UN and the international community and, if the offensive ends, ensuring that Al Qaeda will continue to have a base in Syria's north-western Idlib province. Tragically, the only way to uproot the "terrorists" and prevent Al Qaeda from expanding from Idlib and launching operations from this province is to defeat and expel these groups which have embedded themselves among civilians.

When the US-led coalition, which included troops from all the above European countries, decided to take on Daesh in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, little thought was given to the hundreds of thousands of civilians living in these cities and adjoining areas ruled by the radicals. Civilians were ignored and the Western powers did not bother to count the fatalities caused by intensive bombing and shelling. It has been left to human rights organisations and local people to assess deaths and damage.

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