ANKARA: A rebel counter-offensive has begun in Syria’s Idlib province against regime forces and Russia-backed militias, days ahead of a NATO Summit in London that will discuss the ongoing conflict.
A coalition of groups has taken some towns from the regime in the southeastern part of Idlib, the last remaining opposition rebel bastion.
Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, told Arab News that the aim of the opposition offensive is “to force the regime to cancel any plan for a future attack.”
Meanwhile, a second week-long round of talks on Syria’s constitution ended on Friday without agreement.
There is as yet no date for the next meeting, and experts say the fighting in Idlib will further undermine efforts toward a political solution to the conflict.
“The regime cannot accuse the opposition of failing the political process as the regime is primary responsible for undermining it,” Ammar Hamou, senior editor at the Syria Direct news outlet, told Arab News.
“The Syrian regime is at the height of insolence because it didn’t abide by the cease-fire, and took control of Khan Sheikhoun and the northern countryside of Hama at a time when Turkey and Russia were supporting the political process.”
Halid Abdurrahman, a researcher and analyst on the Middle East and North Africa, said he does not expect the NATO Summit to resolve the crisis.
“However, some decisions can be taken on the fate of Syrian refugees currently hosted by Turkey,” he told Arab News.
“The attacks that were initiated by Russia in the southern part of Idlib may nevertheless trigger a wave of thousands of civilians to the Turkish borders.”
The regime cannot accuse the opposition of failing the political process as the regime is primary responsible for undermining it.
Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, said there is a risk that as the Turkish military and allied Syrian groups prioritize fighting Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, Russian and regime forces will take advantage of their departure from Idlib to intensify their assault there.
“The 3 million civilians sheltering in Idlib are at risk, completely vulnerable to Russia’s and Syria’s bombardment with little if any concern for civilian deaths,” he told Arab News.
“As has been the case for the past two years, the key to preventing a bloodbath in Idlib is pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Roth said.
“European governments especially must make clear that any hope he has for normalized relations with Europe, let alone future reconstruction assistance for Syria, depends on his preventing the slaughter of civilians in Idlib.”
Abdurrahman said the participation of some Ankara-backed groups in the rebel counter-offensive in Idlib “means that Turkey supports a military operation against Russia, while Moscow can use these clashes to justify a harsher intervention in Idlib in the coming days.”
Experts say the participation of Ankara-backed groups is a sign of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with recent contacts between Russia and the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a terrorist group.
Last week, a Russian delegation discussed infrastructure and service issues with a YPG council in the northern Syrian city of Ayn Al-Arab, which the group was supposed to have left a month ago under a deal between Moscow and Ankara.
Hamou said if Turkey and Russia want the political process in Syria to succeed, they must put real pressure on the regime in Damascus, in the same way that the opposition is being pressured.
Ankara and Moscow “must also explain what the political process means for civilians, and provide them with real guarantees,” he said.