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Syria Revolution - 2019

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The ambitions of the Assad-Iran forces to forcibly reconquer the whole country remain. The new phase of the war in 2019 had all the trappings of an endgame, but some aspects of it may endure for the foreseeable future. With external powers now dominating spheres of influence from which Assad cannot easily oust them, Syria's unsettled state may be turning into a frozen conflict where intermittent skirmishing and negotiations emerge as a new normal, and cease-fire lines gain permanency even in the absence of formal recognition.

By late 2018 the Turks had been amassing more military hardware along the border, including tanks, howitzers and armored personnel carriers. And inside Syria, Turkish-backed forces have moved closer to the strategic town of Manbij, controlled by Kurdish fighters, who until now have felt protected by the presence of U.S. ground troops. This past week, the Kurds turned to Damascus for protection, calling in Assad's forces into Manbij to deter a Turkish attack. Juggling the interests and demands of both Damascus and Ankara while keeping Tehran satisfied is going to be a challenge for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's also trying to prevent a potential clash between Israel, another Western-allied power he has been courting, and Iran in the south and west of the country.

"Moscow's permission for Ankara to use Syrian airspace enables Russia to set the pace and duration of Turkish military operations inside Syria," according to Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military analyst. Writing for the Al-Monitor news site, he said Moscow was able to control the pace in March of Turkey's assault on Afrin, closing down Turkish air operations for a week to allow Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to withdraw from the border town without being targeted by the Turkish air force.

"Would Turkey dare use airspace in northeast Syria despite opposition by Moscow? No," said Gurcan. Otherwise it would not have sent a high-ranking Turkish delegation to Moscow last month to lobby for permission, he maintained. Being the regional power-broker, as Russia now in effect has become, will test Moscow's juggling skills in a highly volatile corner of the world, say other analysts. Moscow could end up trapped in a quagmire.

Erdogan said 15 January 2019 the US president, in a phone call with him, reaffirmed the US troop pullout from Syria as well as "a 20-mile [32km] security zone along the Syrian border... will be set up by us [Turkey]." Erdogan said that he viewed a proposed 20-mile [32km] safe zone in northern Syria positively and added that its range may be extended further.

With all previous ceasefire agreements, the regime coalition used the calm on some fronts to concentrate resources on another—and systematically liquidated the de-escalation zones, one after the other, until by late July there was only Idlib left. Idlib was, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a “festering abscess” that had to be eliminated, and he hoped the West would “not obstruct an anti-terror operation”.

The dominant military force in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor to Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. HTS has broken from Al Qaeda’s command structure and Al Qaeda’s loyalists have regrouped into a faction calling itself Tandheem Hurras al-Deen. Nonetheless, HTS remains “jihadist” in ideology and is registered as a terrorist group, including now by Turkey.

The fate of Idlib, the last remaining liberated province of Syria, had rested in a 17 September 2018 deal between Turkey and Russia for a de-escalation zone where acts of aggression would be expressly prohibited. Despite its presentation as a ‘peace deal’, ‘demilitarisation’ had always been a means used by Assad and Russia to delay and better prepare their inevitable conquests of liberated areas of Syria. Before the war, Idlib had a population of 1.5 million people [less than one tenth of a total of about 22 million], now it had a population of 4 million [nearly a quarter of a total of possibly 18 million], with it being a beacon for internally displaced civilians.

Moscow was piling pressure on Ankara to start an operation against the opposition-held areas after Turkey could not push rebels to agree to Russian patrols and get all militants out of a buffer zone that underpinned the Turkish-Russian deal. In early May 2019, Russia and Assad began ramping up air attacks on towns like Kfar Nabudah, which is strategically important as a launching post for any large-scale ground assault on Idlib, 150,000 Syrians were cleansed in merely a few days. Most made their way into Idlib proper, often sleeping in the open air, or into the already overcrowded camps along the Turkish border. The airstrikes, using both Russia’s missiles and Assad’s barrel bombs, had been the heaviest attacks in 15 months – fleeing civilians had been targeted for bombing.

UN Senior Humanitarian Adviser, Najat Rochdi, warned 17 May 2019 that the alarming escalation of hostilities in northern Syria’s Idlib province could spiral out of control with disastrous consequences for its three million civilian inhabitants. The recent uptick in violence in Syria’s northern Idlib province is causing alarm among U.N. and international observers. Over the first two weeks of May, at least 100 civilians reportedly have been killed or injured in clashes between Russian-backed Syrian forces and al-Qaida associated rebels. Dozens of medical and health facilities, as well as schools have been hit by airstrikes and more than 180,000 people reportedly have fled their homes toward supposedly safer areas.

Speaking at a UN Security Council meeting on Friday, UN humanitarian affairs coordinator Mark Lowcock said there had been concern about the escalating situation in Idlib for months. "Last September, he (UN secretary-general) stressed that it was absolutely essential to avoid a full-scale battle in Idlib, and he warned that would unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any we have seen in Syria," said Lowcock. "When I briefed you here on September 18, I said a full-scale military onslaught could result in the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century. Despite our warnings, our worst fears are now coming true."

At least 18 hospitals and clinics had been destroyed or damaged by air raids and shelling, several of which were on UN "no target" lists that detail exact locations of the health facilities to the warring sides. "Bombing hospitals carrying out their medical functions is a war crime," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's director of research for the Middle East.

A ceasefire had not been fully secured in Syria's north-western Idlib province, despite an announcement by Moscow, Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu said on 13 June 2019. Russian news agencies cited the Russian military as saying that Russia and Turkey brokered a complete ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province between Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad's forces and the opposition. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said regime forces, with the cover of Russian warplanes, targeted areas under de-escalation zones. Regime forces fired shells on Kafr Zita in Hama and the towns of Abdeen and Al Naqir in southern Idlib.

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