Escalating war in Idlib creates new refugee crisis

Issue 
Refugees at Greece-Turkey border. Photo: ANF

A February 27 Russian and Syrian airstrike on a Turkish military convoy in Idlib province – which killed more than 36 Turkish soldiers – highlights Turkey's growing military presence in northern Syria. 

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 7600 Turkish troops and 2850 trucks and military vehicles crossed the border into Syria's Idlib and Aleppo provinces between February 2 and 24.

Turkish military drones flying over Idlib fire missiles at Syrian government troops and guide Turkish artillery attacks.

Turkish troops have been in northern Syria since August 2016. Earlier Turkish military interventions were carried out following agreements between Russia (which backs Syria’s Bashar al-Assad dictatorship) and Turkey (which supports some anti-Assad rebel groups). However, the latest incursion was carried out without any such agreement.

Turkey’s previous military interventions have been aimed at crushing the Rojava Revolution. This democratic revolution began in the predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria in 2012. It spread to adjacent areas and led to the creation of the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, defended by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Turkish troops crossed the border at Jarablus in 2016 and blocked the further advance of the SDF, which had liberated the town of Manbij from the Islamic State (IS).

Turkey began moving troops into Idlib province and adjacent areas in 2017–18. The ostensible aim was to monitor a peace agreement in the area. Twelve "observation posts" (military bases) were established. But some troops were stationed close to the predominantly Kurdish Afrin canton, as Turkey prepared for an invasion of that area.

The Turkish invasion of Afrin began in January 2018. By March that year the invasion was largely complete, although guerrilla resistance by the SDF continues.

In October last year Turkey invaded a strip of Syrian territory along the border between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in north-eastern Syria.

These Turkish incursions were directed against the Rojava Revolution and carried out after negotiations with Russia and with the agreement, or at least acquiescence, of the Assad regime.

Assad is also opposed to the Rojava Revolution and uses the Turkish invasion of SDF-controlled areas to pressure the Autonomous Administration to agree to the restoration of his control in north-eastern Syria. 

But Assad fears Turkey may try to permanently occupy Syrian territory. Hence there has been some limited cooperation between the SDF and Assad's forces in preventing Turkey from expanding its area of occupation beyond what Russia and Assad have agreed to.

Turkey’s latest intervention in Idlib is in support of rebels fighting against the Assad regime.

Idlib has been a centre of opposition to Assad since 2011, when a wave of protests for democratic rights swept across Syria. Peaceful protests were met with violent repression. Some protesters took up arms.

The rebels received aid from Turkey and the Gulf states. But this aid came with strings attached. The Gulf donors and Turkey tended to favour Islamist groups, rather than secular groups open to people of all religions. Turkey, which oppresses its own Kurdish population, also favoured groups that were hostile to the Kurdish-led Rojava Revolution.

The result was the growth of reactionary rebel groups, which were hostile to Kurds and religious minorities. The Syrian Revolutionaries Front, an alliance of secular rebel groups in Idlib, was crushed by the reactionary group Jabhat al-Nusra in 2014.

Democratic forces continued to organise within Idlib's cities but were increasingly repressed by reactionary rebel groups.

One of the centres of the revolution was the town of Saraqib. But democratic forces there came under attack from a series of reactionary groups, and eventually had to leave the town.

A February 10 article on The Guardian website quotes a democratic activist, Odai al-Hussein, who said: "We wanted a free Syria for all Syrians but they [the reactionary groups] wanted an Islamic state. We continued against all the odds: we challenged the [Assad] regime, Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State and al-Nusra. In the end the jihadists took over, but we left our city with dignity knowing how much we endured to keep Saraqib free".

At the time of writing, Saraqib appears to be under the control of the Assad regime after changing hands several times, though fighting continues nearby.

In December 2019 the Assad regime began an offensive to capture Idlib province. It relied heavily on aerial bombardment, which caused huge devastation. Many hospitals and schools have been bombed deliberately, according to United Nations official Rupert Colville.

The fighting, particlularly the bombing by Russian and Assad regime planes, has caused a million people to flee. Turkish troops have fired on those trying to enter Turkey, killing some. Many displaced people are now living in the open with little or no shelter.

Assad now controls more than a third of Idlib province but Turkey is trying to drive his forces back.

Turkey's motives include the desire to prevent more refugees adding to the more than three million already in Turkey. But Turkey may also want to permanently occupy part of Idlib. Russia and Turkey could agree to a division of Idlib into Assad-controlled and Turkish-controlled areas.

Turkey has been using refugees as a way of pressuring European countries to support it in Syria. The European Union has paid Turkey billions of dollars to prevent refugees leaving Turkey for Europe, but now Erdogan has ended this policy, instead encouraging refugees to go to the Greek and Bulgarian borders. Greek border guards have used tear gas to stop them entering Greece.

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