BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government and its Russian backers have suggested that the recent takeover of the last rebel stronghold in Syria by an Al Qaeda-linked group could threaten a cease-fire that has been in place for several months.
Nearly a million of the more than three million civilians in Idlib Province have already fled their homes elsewhere in Syria, often more than once. Many landed there after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government seized control of other opposition areas in recent years, busing rebels and civilians who refused to live under his rule to Idlib.
The shattering of the cease-fire in Idlib, in northwest Syria, would put the population in the path of yet another military onslaught and propel a wave of refugees into Turkey, which lies to the north.
Many analysts have regarded Mr. Assad’s assault on Idlib, backed by Russian air power, as a matter of when, not if. Mr. Assad is determined to retake control of all of Syria, grinding out victory after nearly eight years of civil war; Moscow is concerned about foreign fighters from its neighbors in Central Asia taking root in Idlib.
And Russia is showing signs of impatience.
The situation in Idlib is “rapidly deteriorating,” a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said last week. When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Moscow on Wednesday, Mr. Putin emphasized that the two countries must take “additional steps” to stop terrorist groups in Idlib.
Without specifying what should be done, he did not rule out breaking the cease-fire.
“Supporting the cease-fire,” Mr. Putin said, “should not come at the expense of the struggle against terrorists, which is to be continued.”
A joint Russia-Assad assault would be catastrophic for people in Idlib, tens of thousands of whom already depend on outside aid for everything. This winter, cold temperatures and rains have plunged whole camps of displaced families into misery, flooding and destroying more than 3,600 tents and displacing some people yet again, according to the United Nations.
Until recently, Idlib was a more-or-less stable patchwork of territory dominated by armed groups — some extremist, some more moderate — and a few pockets run by elected civilian councils.
Under a deal struck in the fall between Russia and Turkey, which had put Idlib under its protection, Turkey was expected to root out Idlib’s extremist armed groups in return for Russia’s keeping Mr. Assad away from the province. Instead, a Qaeda affiliate called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham gradually gained dominance over Idlib, and this month decisively ousted its more moderate rivals and asserted administrative control.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or H.T.S., is the latest iteration of the Nusra Front, a rebel group linked to Al Qaeda that grew out of the war’s early days.
Despite Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s extremist roots, residents of Idlib said that the group so far did not appear interested in running the province with an iron fist. Instead, they said, it has integrated itself into civilian life, in some cases collaborating with civilian leaders.
Some of its foreign fighters have married local women and opened restaurants and bakeries. Its morality police has neither strictly separated men from women in public life nor enforced a punitive dress code, both hallmarks of the Islamic State’s rule in other parts of Syria.
“H.T.S. is not trying to rule the liberated areas with the sword,” the group’s leader, Abu Muhammed al-Julani, told its official media agency this month.
Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the group had been responsible for sporadic violence and kidnappings, though those may die down now that it has established local dominance. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has not been “as draconian and terrifying as ISIS,” he said, and, unlike the Islamic State, does not seem focused on plotting terrorist attacks abroad.
Huda Khayti, a teacher who came to Idlib after being forced to leave another part of Syria, said she did not feel that she had to dress more modestly than usual when she left the house.
“I’ve never been bothered by H.T.S.” or its morality police, she said in an interview in the fall. “There’s something changing in them.”
Ms. Khayti runs a center for women where she teaches English, sewing and computer skills. The militants have not interfered, she said.
The shift from constant armed struggle to day-to-day administration has been marked enough that one foreign fighter with the group, Khatab Yinderbayf, a Chechnyan, quit the group in disappointment last year. His fellow foreign fighters were settling down and opening businesses, he said in an interview.
“It’s no longer the group I knew,” he said in a WhatsApp voice message. “It’s no longer the jihad I came for.”
Still, Mostapha Kerdi, a hospital administrator who has lived under H.T.S. control for more than four years, said residents did not go out at night, fearing kidnapping and robbery.
In Idlib, he said, “life is becoming more difficult day after day.”
In addition to Russia’s other concerns about Idlib, it also wants to preserve good relations with Turkey as well as manage the situation in northeast Syria, where the American troop withdrawal has spawned complicated negotiations among Russia, Turkey, Kurdish forces and Damascus.
“Russia does have real and serious counterterrorism concerns related to Idlib, but the extent of those concerns is not totally clear,” said Mr. Heller, the analyst. Given all of other Russia’s priorities in Syria, he added, “It seems impossible to consider Idlib in isolation from that.”
A Syrian rebellion that began with peaceful protests in 2011 came to be at least partly overrun by extremist groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Now the only real territory held by neither the government nor extremists is in northeast Syria, where American-backed Kurdish and Arab forces are battling to take the last remnants of Islamic State territory.
With the impending withdrawal of American forces, however, the Kurdish forces in the northeast have turned toward the government in Damascus. They are in talks about reaching a deal that could allow Mr. Assad and the Kurds to coexist there as Turkey, which regards the Kurdish fighters on its southern border as a security threat, threatens to roust them from the area.
Mr. Erdogan has called for the United States to help it establish a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria, a 20-mile buffer region east of the Euphrates River that would keep Kurdish forces away from Turkey’s border, and has said Turkey will move ahead with it even without American assistance.
Turkey’s focus on Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria may have inadvertently allowed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to sweep to dominance, said Ismail Hakki Pekin, a former chief of Turkish military intelligence.
Mr. Pekin said Turkish intelligence officials had siphoned off Turkish-backed rebel fighters in Idlib for operations against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. Depleted of manpower, the moderate rebels remaining in Idlib could not resist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham when it attacked.
“Maybe Russia will persuade Turkey to let them enter Idlib,” he said. If so, he said, “they will kill a lot of people and will cause a huge inflow of refugees into Turkey.”
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s rise to power could further complicate humanitarian operations in Idlib: Western governments that provide much of the funding for humanitarian aid have become leery of channeling donations to Idlib in recent months over concerns that the money would end up bolstering a terrorist group. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has also made moves to insert itself into the distribution of aid, though it recently backed down in one key instance, Mr. Heller said.
The United States has designated the group a terrorist organization, and at least two aid groups had to scale back their work in Idlib last year after the United States’ main aid agency put restrictions on grants. Several Western-funded stabilization programs have been suspended.
“Idlib is the catchall for the most vulnerable,” said Rachel Sider, a spokeswoman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid group that operates across Syria. “Aid agencies will again adapt to the context to keep reaching the most vulnerable through the most direct means, including from areas now under government control.”
Orignially published in NYT.