The violence of the Syrian civil war has resurged again, as fighting intensifies in, around, and for the city of Idlib.
According to the United Nations over 830,000 people have been displaced by the Syrian government’s attack on Idlib since December, with 143,000 from the last few days. The severe lack of resources for overcrowded refugee camps has been made much worse by subfreezing weather, and breakdowns in food distribution.
For most of the civil war there has been a largely open border between Turkey and Syria, and millions of refugees managed to flee to Turkey with relative ease. Since the invasion of northern Syria and the beginning of a forced resettlement programme, this is no longer the case.
The area surrounding Idlib had previously been where many internal refugees had ended up. At the beginning of the war a million and a half people lived in Idlib, and now there are three million.
Outside of Turkey’s occupation zone in formerly Kurdish-held northern Syria, Idlib is controlled by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-led (HTS) Syrian Salvation Government. This was formed by the unification of a number of Islamist groups, perhaps most notably the al-Nusra front, who had been fighting against the Syrian government, yet also opposed the main Syrian opposition, the Syrian Interim Government.
Despite the fractures and disagreements amongst the anti-Assad forces, as the war has continued some of these lines have become blurred. Turkey has designated HTS as a terrorist organisation, yet their relationship in the most recent batch of conflict seems unclear, and Turkish-backed rebels have fought alongside HTS.
There are now open clashes between the Turkish and Syrian governments, as Turkey further involves its own forces rather than relying on its proxies. This is further complicated by the Russian support for the Syrian government, which includes carrying out airstrikes.
The situation in Syria parallels that in Libya. Russia and Turkey are supporting different sides in each civil war, yet have been working in concert, visibly being the parties to broker ceasefires and negotiations.
Turkey has put serious effort into endearing themselves to Russia after they mistakenly shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015. Energy has formed the backbone of this relationship. The two countries have built a joint gas pipeline, TurkStream, with the hope of giving Russian gas a route to Europe which bypasses Ukraine, and Russia’s already top share of gas and oil exports to Turkey has increased since the renewed sanctions on Iran.
In Syria there is potential for a real rupture to develop between these two increasingly venturesome imperialist powers. For each, Syria is much more central to its aims, and the repercussions if its chosen side loses the civil war will be much greater than in Libya.