An expert analyst evaluated possible scenarios for the embattled opposition stronghold of Idlib, Syria, the effects of the great migration wave on Turkey and Europe, and Idlib’s strategic importance for Turkey.
Anadolu Agency sat down with Veysel Kurt, a research specialist at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), based in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and a faculty member of the political science department at Istanbul Medeniyet University,
Question: Idlib, which shares borders with Turkey, has received the largest number of internally displaced people in Syria. In this context, what is the strategic importance of Idlib for Turkey and the Assad regime?
Kurt: Having Aleppo to the east, Aleppo’s Afrin district to the northeast, Hama to the South, and Lazkiye to the northwest increases the strategic importance of Idlib, which has borders with Turkey in the northwest. Idlib is as you know is right next to Turkey and is a neighbor to our city of Hatay on our southern border. Idlib was one of Syria’s most populous cities before the crisis, as it is a fertile region for agriculture. Its population is said to be between 1.5 and 2 million.
With the crisis, especially after 2015 when the opposition captured Idlib, migration from the conflicting regions intensified. As you know Aleppo is close to Idlib and at the end of 2016, as Aleppo was taken under control by the regime, another great migration started from Aleppo toward Idlib. The second serious migration wave was from Eastern Ghouta and lastly, when an operation was carried out on Dera, the population in Idlib reached 3.5-4 million.
Q: Idlib is a city where anti-Assad regime groups are located. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the most important of these armed groups. What other armed anti-regime groups are in the region?
Kurt: Idlib is important in terms of being the only city under the control of the opposition. Control of the city has a fragmented structure. Idlib is the last stronghold for the Syrian opposition. Besides, the largest opposition groups maintaining an armed struggle against the Assad regime are in Idlib. In 2015, after the opposition captured Idlib from regime control, they restructured themselves under the name of Army of Conquest and the city was controlled through this.
The Army of Conquest was the largest organization that the Syrian opposition formed. The city was controlled by a coalition which included the Al-Nusra Front and other opposition groups. Then these structures began to splinter among themselves and divide the city according to spheres of influence. In other words, these structures which entered the city with a consensus, a coalition, became groups at odds with each other from time to time after they achieved control. There were serious conflicts between Ahrar us-Sham and HTS. Serious scenarios were also seen between the Nureddin Mahmud Zengi group and HTS.
Consequently at this point we see that some regions are controlled by HTS, some by Nurettin Zengi, and some by Ahrar us-Sham. Here, countries such as Turkey and the U.S. treat these structures differently on certain levels and don’t regard all the groups as terrorist groups. For instance, the Nusra Front, under its previous name, was seen as a terrorist group. Today things are the same with HTS. But Nurettin Zengi and Ahrar us-Sham have not been declared a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S., Western countries, or some Gulf countries. On the other hand the trio of Russia, the Syrian regime, and Iran treats almost all the groups as terrorist groups. From time to time they declare this openly.