Syria: Assad threatens Idlib while Afrin resists Turkish occupation

SDF soldiers in Afrin after a battle against pro-Turkish militias in February.

The Assad regime and its allies have been building up their forces around the rebel-held Idlib province, in Syria’s north-west, in preparation for a major offensive. Some bombing raids have already been carried out in the south and west of the province.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are carrying out guerrilla resistance against the occupying Turkish army and its militia allies in the Afrin canton, a predominantly Kurdish area of northern Syria.

The SDF is the military alliance of forces that supports a secular, democratic and federal Syria, based on the revolutionary model of “democratic confederalism” practiced in SDF-held areas of northern Syria.

Idlib and Afrin are two battlefields in the multi-sided conflict in Syria.

In 2011, Syria experienced a popular uprising against the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Peaceful mass protests demanded democratic rights. The regime responded with violent repression. 

Some protesters took up arms in response to the repression. They were joined by defectors from the Assad regime’s armed forces.

Many rebel groups were formed. Many used the name “Free Syrian Army”, but the FSA was not a united force. It was a collection of militias allied in the fight against the Assad regime, but often rivals for control of territory and access to outside aid.

There were other armed groups that did not use the FSA label. Among them were Jabhat al-Nusra (JN — the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda), and ISIS.

Some rebel groups have received weapons and/or money from external sources, particularly Turkey and the Gulf states. Funding from governments and private sources in the Gulf has generally favoured Islamist groups rather than secular ones.

Turkey’s main criterion in deciding which groups to support has been the group’s hostility to Kurdish self-determination. Turkey has long denied its Kurdish population democratic rights and fought a decades-long war against Kurdish liberation forces within its borders. Unsurprisingly, it has been especially hostile to the Kurdish-led revolution in Rojava right on its border. 

The fact that groups that were Islamist and/or hostile to Kurdish aspirations received the most aid helped them to grow at the expense of other more progressive rebel groups.

Rojava Revolution

In July 2012, an uprising occurred in three predominantly Kurdish cantons, known collectively as Rojava in the Kurdish language. People surrounded the Assad regime’s military bases and called on the soldiers to surrender. In most cases, they did so. With regime forces stretched by fighting rebels on multiple fronts, those who resisted were quickly defeated.

Having overthrown the regime's control of Rojava, the people of the three cantons began building a new society. They established democratic institutions with equal participation of women and full rights for religious and ethnic minorities.

Rojava was attacked by various Turkish-backed groups, including ISIS, which tried to capture the city of Kobane in 2014. After defeating the ISIS invasion, Rojava’s armed forces went on the offensive. With the assistance of some FSA groups not under Turkey’s control, they liberated much of northern Syria from ISIS.

The liberated areas adopted the name Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), with the SDF as their defence force.

Hostility to the Rojava Revolution led to a change in Turkey's policy towards Syria. Initially, Turkey supported overthrowing Assad and replacing him with a government friendly to Turkey. But the Rojava Revolution caused a change of priorities.

Suppression of Rojava and the DFNS became Turkey’s main aim. Eventually, the goal of overthrowing Assad was abandoned altogether.

Last year, Turkey entered into negotiations with Russia and Iran, both of which support Assad. The negotiations, held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, led to the declaration of four “de-escalation zones”, within which there would be ceasefires between rebels and the Assad regime.

Idlib

These ceasefires proved to be short-lived. Assad’s troops have invaded three of the de-escalation zones, and seem ready to invade the fourth — Idlib.

The 2011 anti-Assad uprising had strong support in Idlib. By 2015, rebels controlled the whole province.

But the rebels were not a united force. At times different groups fought each other.

In 2014, JN attacked and destroyed the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a coalition of FSA groups. Later JN, which had been renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), fought other groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist group that had previously been its ally.

Today, HTS is the strongest group in Idlib, controlling 60% of the territory.

HTS is extremely reactionary. It is oppressive towards women and religiously sectarian. For example HTS forced the Druze, a religious minority, to convert to Sunni Islam and destroyed their shrines.

HTS has had an uneasy relationship with Turkey. It has cooperated with Turkey in attacking Rojava and the DFNS, but has criticised the Astana negotiations.

Turkey has closer relations with some other rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham. These Turkish backed groups are being used in the war against Afrin.

Afrin

Afrin is considered part of Rojava, but is geographically separated from the other Kurdish majority areas.

In January, Turkey invaded Afrin, accompanied by some of the Syrian rebel groups it had coopted.

After two months of aerial bombardment and ground invasion, Turkey captured Afrin city. But this did not end the violence. The pro-Turkish militias have carried out a reign of terror, looting homes, shops and farms, kidnapping people for ransom, and burning olive trees. They have carried out the forced conversion of the Yazidi religious minority.

Many of Afrin’s residents have fled. They are being replaced by people from elsewhere in Syria, including the families of members of pro-Turkish militias.

Guerrilla resistance is continuing in Afrin. SDF fighters have carried out ambushes of Turkish troops and their allies.

Russia

When Turkey began to support the anti-Assad rebels in 2011, this put it in conflict with Russia. But relations between Russia and Turkey have recently improved.

Turkey is now totally focused on crushing the DFNS, abandoning the goal of overthrowing Assad. Russia, which controls the airspace over Afrin, allowed Turkey to bomb and invade the area.

Assad has benefited from the Turkish invasion of Afrin, because many rebel fighters who were formerly trying to overthrow him have been diverted into fighting the SDF.

But this does not mean that relations between Turkey and Assad are completely harmonious. 

Turkey controls a significant amount of territory in northern Syria — not only Afrin, but also an area east of Afrin including the towns of Azaz, Jarablus and al-Bab. Turkey also has 12 “observation posts” (i.e. military bases) in Idlib province.

Turkey has talked of invading the city of Manbij. Turkey would also invade other parts of the DFNS if it thought it could get away with it.

Some of Turkey’s actions in the areas it controls suggest it would like to rule these areas indefinitely. For example, it promotes the use of the Turkish language. Various Turkish institutions have established branches in the Turkish-controlled areas of Syria.

This creates a potential conflict between Turkey and Assad, because the latter aims to eventually recapture the whole of Syria.

DFNS-Assad talks

On July 26, representatives of the DFNS went to Damascus for talks with regime representatives.

The DFNS has long called for discussions aimed at a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis, but until recently both Assad and the rebels have refused to talk with the DFNS.

The Assad regime has now initiated talks, though it has also threatened to invade the DFNS if it does not accept Assad’s authority.

Assad’s goal in initiating these talks may be to warn Turkey that he has other options if negotiations do not give him the outcome he wants. It could be an implied threat to cooperate with the SDF to drive Turkey out of Syria if it tries to hold onto Syrian territory.

Ilham Ehmed, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, the leading body of the DFNS, said the talks were “positive”, but warned against excessive hopes. She denied claims by opponents of the DFNS that liberated areas would be handed over to the Assad regime, saying: “There is no question of the liberated areas being handed to anyone.”

On September 7, the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Tehran in an attempt to resolve their differences. At the time of writing it is unclear whether they have reached agreement on the future of Idlib. They issued a joint statement, but this appears to disguise differences over Assad’s plans for a large scale offensive in Idlib.

There has been speculation that Turkey might join the Assad regime and its allies in attacking HTS, if Assad agrees not to attack pro-Turkish groups.

Whether or not this happens, the invasion of Idlib by the Assad regime is likely to lead to many civilian casualties and a new wave of refugees fleeing the province.