Armageddon Postponed Syria's Idlib Province Gets New Lease on Life

The looming military offensive on the Idlib province in Syria has been called off for now. People there are yearning to return to normal life and rapidly planning for the future. But how long with the peace last?

Aziz Ajini

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Two weeks before the sudden cease-fire, Abdul Aziz Ajini's neighbors thought he had gone crazy. While others in the village of Kurin, located in Idlib province, trembled with fear ahead of the major offensive on the immediate horizon, Ajini, a former professor of English literature at a local college, began to rebuild his home, which had been bombed to rubble years ago.

As the people of Idlib were trying to sell their homes, property and furniture to raise money for their escape -- even though no one was buying, and nobody even knew where they could flee to -- Ajini was busy collecting cement and bricks and hiring an engineer. Even the engineer pulled him aside and asked: "Tell me, Aziz, are you really sure this is a good idea -- now, of all times?"

He himself hadn't even bought any new clothes for months. People were ready to flee at a moment's notice, taking only what they could carry -- whatever fit on a motorcycle or in a car. An entire province of nearly 3 million people was waiting with bated breath, listening for the sounds of approaching fighter jets, those harbingers of death.

Then on Sept. 17, something happened that no one had been expecting: Turkey and Russia reached an agreement and the offensive was called off. There would be no new attacks. The news came 10 days after a summit in Tehran failed to produce any results. Now, weeks after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's announcement that "this festering abscess must be liquidated," there has been a sudden turnaround. At least for the time being.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu presented the parameters of the deal at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday of last week. The agreement calls for the establishment, by October 15, of a 15 to 20 kilometer-wide demilitarized corridor along the existing front line surrounding Idlib and the northern edge of Hama province. Any jihadi groups among the rebels would have to withdraw from that area five days prior to that date. A majority of rebels under Turkish control would be allowed to stay, but they would have to move tanks and artillery into central Idlib. The zone would be under the surveillance of the Turkish military and the Russian military police, who have long maintained bases here.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was opposed the offensive for a variety of reasons, some understandable, some more sinister. Storming Idlib would have driven hundreds of thousands toward the airtight Turkish-Syrian border and would have forced Ankara to take them in even as the government struggles to deal with the country's tanking economy -- in addition to the 3 million Syrian refugees who are already in Turkey.

Geographical Buffer

Erdogan has always linked his support for Syria's rebels with his campaign against Kurdish PKK separatists operating on Turkish and Syrian soil. Having Idlib under his control would be useful, providing him both with a human reservoir and a geographical buffer. A destroyed Idlib under Assad's control, on the other hand, would endanger the protectorate that Turkish troops have fought so hard to establish in northern Syria in recent years.

Erdogan took significant risks to get Moscow on his side. Attacks by Assad's troops against targets in southern Idlib had been answered with counterattacks by rebels armed with Turkish weapons and ammunition. Erdogan had also threatened to walk away from multilateral talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran on the future of Syria that were taking place in the Kazakh capital, Astana, should the offensive against Idlib go ahead.

Still, hardly anyone in Idlib believed that the horror could still be avoided. Except for Ajini, the chain-smoking ex-professor from Kurin. And since the evening of Sept. 17, his neighbors no longer consider him crazy. Whereas they used to drop by to look at his bags of cement in wonder and disbelief, Ajini says, now they come by to ask where they can buy some too.

The province of Idlib, widely known in Europe as one of the last remaining jihadist strongholds, is more than twice as large as the German state of Saarland. Its soil is fertile and was densely populated even before the war. The sense of relief that has overcome the entire province has nothing to do with ideology, but with the will to live. Suddenly, people are spending their money again. Farmers are buying fertilizer and seed. Merchants are getting back in touch with their old suppliers in Turkey and northern Iraq. And refugees are starting to return to their villages in southern Idlib.

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For years, the farmer Adnan al-Sawadi was unable to harvest the crop produced by his 2,000 pistachio trees in Murik, located near the front lines - and prices were low as well. "But now, since Tuesday morning, customers are getting in touch again and saying they want to buy everything in advance." In the city of Khan Shaykhun, the tire salesman Mohammed Mansour had to keep postponing a telephone interview because customers kept coming in. "You should have called on Sunday," he joked. "I was free the entire day."

Ahmed Dervish, an engineer and a member of the local city council, recalls the night-long debates in recent months: "Will the regime attack? Will Turkey come to the rescue? Will it betray us? Are we all going to die?" His wife, a trained pharmacist, used to dream of having her own pharmacy. But Dervish was opposed. "We had $5,000, our entire savings. We could take it with us. We couldn't take a pharmacy." She heard about the Sochi agreement before her husband did and immediately called him: "Ahmed! They're not going to attack! Find an empty storefront!"

Pistachios, Sex and Tires

Throughout Idlib, people are beginning to repair their homes and are daring to send their children to school again -- or even have some in the first place. Yaman al-Hammo, a bookkeeper from the city of Maarrat al-Nu'man, got married in 2017 and since then he and his new bride have done nothing but fight. "First my wife wanted a child. Then her parents got involved and started trying to convince me. They even went to my parents so they could pressure me too. But how are we supposed to have a baby in the middle of all this shit? What if we have to flee and walk 20 kilometers at night while being shot at? I would have never forgiven myself if our child had perished like that."

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On Monday evening, al-Hammo sent his wife to the hospital to have her intrauterine device removed. "She said we could afford to wait another night. But sweetheart, I told her, for a year and a half you've been saying how badly you want a baby. Now I don't want to wait any longer."

It was the best night since their wedding, he said.

Pistachios, sex and tires -- peculiar details for a story about war and peace. Others could also be added: the fig harvest, the storage of chick peas and one workshop owner's plans in Saraqib to start making potato chips. That, after all, is what the vast majority of the 3 million civilians here want: their lives back. Free of fear, whether of Assad's troops or the jihadis.

The roughly 12,000 fighters who were once organized as the Al-Nusra Front before breaking with al-Qaida and changing their name to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham ("Levant Liberation Committee"), or HTS, have been trying to turn Idlib into an Islamic emirate for years, a kind of miniature dictatorship similar to Islamic State. The group -- which includes Tunisians, Chechens and Germans, among others -- wasn't successful, but it didn't completely fail, either. There is an air of intimidation, perpetuated by murder and kidnappings of businessmen and doctors. Any search for the perpetrators often leads back to HTS.

Abdul Aziz Ajini in Idlib
Aziz Ajini

Abdul Aziz Ajini in Idlib

The National Liberation Front, made up of other Turkish-led rebel groups, has more than twice as many fighters in its ranks as HTS, but ultimately the decision falls on Ankara whether to send them to destroy HTS -- like the government has said it would -- or to keep them in reserve for some later battle.

But how realistic is it that this agreement will stick? Or that it truly marks the beginning of a process that, while not exactly guaranteeing freedom and peace for the whole country, at least prevents further annihilation by Assad?

Nowhere Else to Go

Based on experience, the opposite will likely turn out to be true. Moscow has one-after-the-other broken the "de-escalation agreements" it has entered, allowing its air force to bomb suburbs of Damascus in Eastern Ghouta and most recently in the southern Syrian province of Daraa. Idlib was the last de-escalation zone. Here, too, the attacks began according to the same pattern -- with Russian jets bombing the hospitals first.

Nothing, it seemed, could stop Assad's last big offensive, one that would prove more murderous than all the others that preceded it. Ever since the government regained control of eastern Aleppo in December 2016, it has given Syrians an option after every battle: Those who don't want to submit to the regime can take a bus to Idlib. In 2018, as many as 110,000 people took advantage of this offer. This helped to placate some of the outrage in the West. But from Idlib, there is nowhere else to go.

The military victories Assad has been chalking up since 2015 aren't thanks to his shriveled army. His successes were made possible, rather, by the Russian air force, tens of thousands of Hezbollah fighters following orders from Iran, along with Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militias under Iranian command.

Iran's emissaries reportedly said at a summit in Tehran that they were not interested in bleeding in Idlib. The Iranian leadership has too many other conflicts on its mind at the moment, like Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of its nuclear agreement with Tehran and the fresh American sanctions that are strangling Iran's economy. In the southern Iraqi city of Basra, demonstrators tried to burn down the offices of militias working with Iran. And Israel's air force continues to fly bombing raids against Iranian targets in Syria.

In addition, the U.S. will leave troops in northeastern Syria after all, contrary to an earlier announcement. And they're not only there to fight IS. Some 2,200 American Special Forces will serve to expedite the Iranians' withdrawal from Syria, with the help of the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdish PKK.

'That's What Counts'

Iran's reservations could be one reason why Tehran was so quick to praise the agreement in Sochi. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter that "responsible diplomacy" had helped to avert war. The protection of civilians is "very important to us," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Without Tehran's mercenary army of foot soldiers, any land invasion of Idlib would have presented an indeterminate risk for Moscow. When Syrian anti-aircraft forces shot down a Russian spy plane with a 15-person crew on the same night the agreement was reached in Tehran -- instead of the Israeli warplanes they were targeting -- it seemed like an omen of the chaos that an Idlib offensive would produce.

Syria is as far from a comprehensive peace deal now as it was before Sept. 17. But if the power dynamics on the ground in Syria have permanently shifted, it could ultimately result in a de-facto division of the country. A split-state solution wouldn't provide real peace, but it wouldn't exactly be Armageddon either.

"To be sure," Abdul Aziz Ajini says through a spotty connection on Skype, "we had hoped Europe" would exert is power to change Syria -- into a country in which the rights of all citizens are respected. But in the end, it wasn't the EU's or the UN's calls for peace that prevented a bloodbath, but the Turkish president's gamble with the Russians. "Whatever. We survived. That's what counts," Ajini says.

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