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Syrian Rebels' Last Stronghold: Why Idlib Matters


We're going to begin today by focusing on Syria, where the regime's army, backed by Russia and Iran, is on the verge of retaking the province of Idlib. Idlib is the last major province where rebels are still standing. And, according to the U.N., it's where some 1.4 million civilians have fled seeking refuge from the conflict. Hiba Aljazzar is one of them. We heard from her on this program back in March. She's a 24-year-old laboratory analyst who spent months under siege in eastern Ghouta before she finally made it to Idlib. We reached out to Hiba again today, and she was packing and preparing to leave again. This time, she's hoping to make it to a Turkey-controlled area of Afrin.

HIBA ALJAZZAR: I cried so much with my brothers. I left there in eastern Ghouta. I don't want to remember again. That's enough for us.

MARTIN: We wanted to hear more about the situation in Idlib and why the current moment is so critical, so we've called Martin Chulov of The Guardian. He's been covering the conflict in Syria since it began years ago. He's with us now from Beirut.

Martin, thanks so much for joining us.

MARTIN CHULOV: You're welcome.

MARTIN: The conflict there has gone on for, what, seven - the war has - as it's understood to have been a war - has been going on for seven years now. So, in that time, there have been many, many battles, but this one is considered critical, and why is that?

CHULOV: It's basically the endgame for Syria. It's the one part of the country that remains effectively an opposition stronghold, and it is very important for the Syrian regime and its backers to recapture it so they can claim that after seven grinding years of war, they have finally won back with the military offensive the last known pocket of opposition resistance in the country.

MARTIN: This is the place that - Idlib is where, as we heard earlier, about - what? - 1.4, 1.5 million people are internally displaced from other government assaults. What are those people going to do?

CHULOV: Yeah, you're right. Look. This is the part of the country where people who have fled a regime, Russian-led offensive, over the last three years in particular have ended up. Some of them have refused to come to terms with the Syrian government and the so-called reconciliation deals, which did amount to starvation surrender sieges. And they have - rather than hand themselves over, they agreed to be exiled.

So right throughout the province - it's a densely packed corner of northwestern Syria where most of these people are at odds with the Syrian regime - now, where are they going to run to now? The U.N. has put forward an option of humanitarian corridors being opened up into regime territory. But everybody we speak to say the regime are the organization that we ran from. We are not going to cross the border back into Syrian government territory and risk detention, risk some form of retribution, especially in this current environment of total impunity.

MARTIN: So we know that Iran and Russia are pushing hard to help the Syrian regime retake Idlib. What is the posture from the other world powers, like the U.S. and Turkey, who also have a stake here? What is their position?

CHULOV: Well, we shouldn't be under any illusion here. Russia is calling the shots. The Russian Air Force has been decisive in every other conflict since 2015, and it will be so here. Russia and Iran, Syria's two main backers, demand a stake in what emerges from the ruins of Syria, whenever this war eventually does settle down. But Turkey has a lot to lose. If the northwest of the country does fall to the Syrians, and in a Russian-led offensive, then Turkey's position is fundamentally weakened. They say that they will not let this happen. They will not let Idlib turn into a giant lake of blood, as President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.

But it's difficult to see how they can actually slow this process for now. The Russians are determined to press ahead with it. The Turks don't have much leverage. They haven't got much to bring to the table. So how this plays out in coming weeks is really anybody's guess.

MARTIN: Is either the Syrian regime or Russia responding to the - what seem to be very legitimate fears of a bloodbath?

CHULOV: There was a three-way summit in Tehran on Friday just gone in which the geopolitics were richly debated but the humanitarian situation was not. And, as everybody knows, this is a desperate situation. As you say, 1.4 million people from elsewhere in the country - add to that another 1.5 million people who live in Idlib - where are they going to run to? The NGO estimates are that at least 700,000 will be internally displaced very quickly if any - a large-scale offensive is launched.

MARTIN: Do civilians there have any way out?

CHULOV: I think, from what we can tell - and we've been speaking to a lot of civilians inside the province - they are hoping that these - a Turkish zone of influence inside of Syria, which is to the east of where they are now, will be opened. If the Turks handed that over to internally displaced people, where are they going to go after that? And that's their fear. It's their fear that they will lose any traction or influence that they have in the north of the country if they allow this area to be filled with refugees.

But, at the end of the day, if a large-scale offensive is launched, and people are going to start moving - and they will - I do suspect that there'll be enormous pressure under the Turks to accept internally displaced people and exiles in their own country - in some cases, for a third or fourth time - to be allowed into the Syria that they control, which is just south of the Turkish border.

MARTIN: So what is the endgame here for the Syrian regime? They retake this territory - let's say they do that. Then what?

CHULOV: Well, this is the thing. In some ways, when the Syrian regime is able to claim, nominally at least, that they have recaptured all of the country except for the northeast, where there is a nominal Islamic State presence, what sort of Syria will emerge from the ruins of this catastrophic war? It's a fact that Russia and Iran have led the way in terms of clawing back Assad's position right across the country, especially since September, October 2015, which is the first time the Russian Air Force became involved to the extent that they are. And ever since then, they've doubled down.

But both of those allies have invested billions of dollars of treasure and lots of blood of their own people as well in securing Assad. What are they going to want in terms of the national character? Who gets to define it? A Syria within the model that we're looking at with two allies who have invested so much is not going to be sovereign. It may notionally be so. It may be that Russia and Iran will allow the perception to be entrenched. But right through Damascus, right through the hearts of power, there is a significant influence being exerted by both sides, and they will want to define the terms of reconstruction, to define the terms of governance in many ways. And also, fundamentally, who gets to define the national character after so many years of war? And those questions are yet to be answered.

MARTIN: That's Martin Chulov of The Guardian. He's been covering the conflict in Syria since it began. We reached him in Beirut.

Martin, thanks so much for talking with us.

CHULOV: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.