A last minute deal struck between Russia and Turkey in September halted plans for a massive military assault on Idlib—Syria’s last rebel-held province.

Under the deal, a 15-20 kilometre-wide demilitarised buffer zone between government and rebel-held areas will be enforced. Turkey has agreed to force rebel groups to remove all heavy weaponry from the area, and to disarm hardline Islamist groups like HTS (Hayat Tahrir Sham, led by the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra). HTS leaders are resisting this.

In June, the UN announced that in the first four months of 2018 a record 920,000 people were displaced, partly due to the regime’s offensive against Eastern Ghouta. Many of them fled to Idlib. As a result, its population has swollen to more than three million.

The deal provides short-term relief for millions of civilians. However, it further demonstrates how external powers are deciding the Syrian conflict’s outcome. The latest deal was negotiated directly between Turkish President Erdoğan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Turkey has backed a number of rebel groups in Idlib, seeking to establishment an area under its control along its border. Erdoğan has sent troops to push the Kurdish PYD and its Syrian Democratic Forces out of the area.

He also wants to stem the flow of refugees into Turkey and, unlike Trump, has succeeded in building a wall—concrete slabs seal most of its 1000 kilometre border with Syria. Erdoğan had threatened to send more refugees into Europe if an assault went ahead.

The US also threatened to bomb Syria again if the regime used chemical weapons in Idlib.

Russia realised that a full-scale attack on Idlib would come at a political price. Iran, whose militias on the ground have often been decisive, also signalled major misgivings.

The reactionary HTS is the strongest armed group in Idlib. But much of the population remain supportive of the initial democratic aims of the Syrian revolution. Activist networks and civil society organisations continually resist HTS’s attempts to repress them.

Every Friday for weeks, courageous mass demonstrations have been held across Idlib province despite the threats of bombardment.

From the largest cities to the smallest villages crowds have united with slogans that reiterate the demands of the 2011 uprising—for social and economic justice, for dignity and democracy, and for the fall of the regime.

HTS fighters have attacked the crowds, firing live ammunition at protesters in Idlib City on 7 September. In some cases they have been driven away. In the village of Darat Izza one resident told Syria Direct, “people went out in protest, refusing the presence of HTS fighters inside Darat Izza.”

As Syrian revolutionary Joseph Daher writes, “These protests expose just how wrong it is to equate the millions of people in Idlib with their jihadist oppressors. Doing so is one of the tricks enacted by Assad and his so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ backers to justify his war against the Syrian popular classes.”

It is unclear whether the Turkey-Russian deal will hold. The deadly bombings already directed against Idlib occurred despite the region being part of a “de-escalation” zone agreed by Russia, Iran and Turkey in September 2017.

Russia’s key role

The Syrian regime still hopes to retake the whole of the country. But Russia has its own interests.

Three years ago Russia’s full scale military intervention into Syria, with the assistance of Iranian and Hezbollah militias, sharply turned the war in the Assad regime’s favour.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that Russian forces have killed at least 18,000 people.

Russia’s aim is to show itself as a power capable of determining the outcome and influencing global politics. Its intervention showed the inability of the US to exert influence in Syria.

Russia has an estimated 4000 troops on the ground including several private military companies.

It has deployed its latest S-300 air defense missile system to ensure the safety of its Tartous naval base and its ships off the Mediterranean coast.

A 49-year agreement with Damascus gives Russia permanent control of the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province, from where its airstrikes are launched. It is now effectively Russian territory.

Assad’s “victory” has come at a massive price. The World Bank estimated in June 2017 that Syria’s GDP plummeted from US$60.2 billion in 2010 to US$12.4 billion in 2016. A third of all buildings, and half of all schools and hospitals, have been damaged or destroyed.

Outside imperialist intervention has prolonged the war and increased the killing. We should oppose all the imperialist powers in Syria.

It is only a revival of the revolutionary movement of 2011 across the Middle East that offers any hope of an alternative.

By Mark Goudkamp

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