Illustration: iStock
Illustration: iStock

Syria’s Idlib province, the last stronghold of the Middle Eastern country’s rebel groups, is the focus of the Assad regime’s final push for territorial control and defines the dynamics of the civil war.

Idlib is not only the last arena in the competition for influence among intervening powers such as Russia, the US, Iran and Turkey, it is also the place where the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime will either subdue rebel groups, many of which are supported by the US and Turkey, or face successful resistance.

The rebels are not a unified group, their tactics vary and they do not all subscribe to the same ideology. The hardline group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) control large swathes of territory in Idlib and allegedly has ties to Al-Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

The hardliners seem unlikely to give up their arms and accept the Assad government’s suzerainty. The moderate groups seem to be amenable to a truce, ceasefire and peace offers; however, their goals will be determined by American and Turkish geopolitical objectives and their willingness to pursue them.

The Syrian civil war contains the seeds of the American desire to bolster its influence in the Middle East by countering the Iranian and Russian influence and fighting the remnants of ISIS along with propping up allies like Israel. Moscow treats the Assad regime as an ally that would defend its interests outside Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Iran, on the other hand, seeks to preserve its regional influence by combating the influence of the US, Israel and ISIS by propping up its allies, such as  Hezbollah and the Assad regime.

Turkey seeks to enhance its influence in the Syria-Turkey border areas, supports the de-escalation of violence and wants to maintain a demilitarized zone between the rebels on one side and Russia, Iran and the Syrian government on the other.

While there are indications that Russia and Iran are poised to eliminate the influence of the rebels unless they surrender, insurgent hardliners may not embrace Turkey’s plans, which are aimed at protecting its border in the event of a mass exodus of rebels. Turkey has expressed its unwillingness to allow further migration from Syria and raised suspicions over alleged links between the Kurdish fighters among the rebel groups and terrorists operating on its soil.

While there are no clear winners in the civil war, which began in 2011, it is easy to identify the losers: the country’s civilians

While there are no clear winners in the civil war, which began in 2011, it is easy to identify the losers: the country’s civilians. American, Russian, Turkish and Iranian ground forces and airstrikes, as well as offensives launched by radical non-state actors such as ISIS and Al Nusra, have inflicted mass civilian casualties. The latter actors also use civilians as human shields to protect and promote their interests.

Syria has been home to unbridled radicalization and violence since 2011. The external powers and the Assad regime have found a common threat in the form of ISIS, but they perceive each other to be threats as well, which has fueled the conflict.

While the declared objectives of American involvement in Syria have been defined in terms of addressing human-rights violations, preventing the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, and waging war against ISIS, it has also expressed its desire to drive the Iranians out of the country. The US has also warned against Russian-backed offensives in southern Syria and threatened to act against any operations in Idlib. Russia and Iran believe their interests are served by bolstering the despotic President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and they have intervened to assist government forces in the fight against ISIS. The internal and external actors in the Syrian civil war have worked at cross-purposes and define their roles in opposition to one another.

Human-rights monitoring groups have alleged that the Syrian government has flagrantly violated international law by carrying out deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, withholding humanitarian aid, forcibly displacing civilians,  and torturing detained rebels.

There have also been reports of civilian casualties from airstrikes launched by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS, raising concerns that it  failed to take the measures necessary to avoid or minimize civilian casualties. Attacks on medical facilities, schools, and religious sites were considered by these intervening powers without regard for civilian casualties.

Syria’s rebel groups range from hardline to moderate and differentiating them from civilians is often impossible. Similarly, ISIS and other radical groups have used civilian sites and human shields to confuse the coalition forces and have resorted to deliberate and indiscriminate offensives against civilians, as well as abducting people, blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid, and using landmines.

Syria’s civilians are the big losers in the civil war as the intervening powers compete for geopolitical influence and the radical groups struggle to gain traction.

Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in international relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, India. Currently, he is working as a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India.