Large rallies were held in towns throughout Idlib on September 14 in response to the threat by the Assad regime to invade the province in Syria’s north-west.
Idlib is currently controlled by a mixture of rebel groups. The strongest is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an extremely reactionary Islamist group that controls 60% of the province.
Rally participants mostly carried the Syrian independence flag that was adopted when Syria became independent of France in 1946. It was later replaced by a series of other flags, but was taken up again by opponents of dictator Bashar al-Assad after the 2011 uprising.
HTS held separate rallies under its own flag.
Some protestors also carried Turkish flags. This reflects their hope that Turkey will deter Assad’s planned invasion of Idlib. Turkey has 12 “observation posts” (military bases) in Idlib.
Turkey, however, is far from a supporter of democracy in Syria. Rebel groups backed by Turkey are generally reactionary and oppressive.
Turkey has used these groups to attack Rojava (the collective name for three predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria) and the broader Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The Turkish army was accompanied by such groups in its invasion of the Afrin canton in January 2018.
The Turkish military presence in Idlib may help delay Assad’s offensive, but is unlikely to give permanent protection.
Turkey is suffering severe economic problems, due in part to the cost of its intervention in Syria and its war against its own Kurdish population. This makes it vulnerable to pressure from Russia, a supporter of the Assad regime. It is likely that Turkey will eventually reach a deal with Russia to restore Assad’s control over Idlib.
The restoration of Assad’s control may occur in stages. A recent agreement between Russia and Turkey for the establishment of a “demilitarised zone” in Idlib appears to be a step in this direction.