BEIRUT (AP) – They dug ditches around cities, fortified caves to cover and put sandbags around their positions. They called for arms and urged young men to join the defense of Idlib, the Syrian province, where opposition fighters expect them to perform their last resistance to Russian and Iranian government forces that they have been fighting for years.
This time it is "surrender or dying".
As a crucial way out for their last fortress, this motley group of tens of thousands of opposition fighters, including some of the world's most radical groups, are looking for ways to save the possibility of an armed rebellion that will eventually be possible in the seven countries. The annual conflict ruled more than half of the country.
In his last chapter, the fate of the Syrian rebellion lies in foreign hands, as in the long, bloody war. This time, the fragmented and diverse rebels have only Turkey.
"The whole world has given us up, but Turkey will not do it," said Captain Nabij al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkey-supported umbrella group of the National Liberation Front.
Idlib, with its 3 million inhabitants and more than 60,000 fighters, is the cross of Turkey.
Ankara has asked Russia and Iran, its troubled negotiating partner, for a diplomatic solution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it sent reinforcements to its troops, which rang Idlib, a movement designed to fend off a ground attack, at least for now.
A broad offensive is only likely after a green light from Russia. But delicate diplomatic steps are at work. Moscow is anxious to strengthen relations with Turkey at a time when Ankara's relations with the United States are lowest. Turkey, which is seeking US and European support, appears to be interested in urging Russia to accept its proposals for an Idlib solution that prevents an attack.
On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets for the second time in 10 days with the Russian Vladimir Putin, this time in Sochi, Russia.
"After demonstrating its influence in Syria and the Middle East, Russia wants to pull Turkey far more out of the West than a military victory over the Syrian armed opposition," wrote Mustafa Ellabbad, an expert in Turkish-Arab relations Kuwaits al-Qabas newspaper.
The province, the size of Lebanon, has been the beating heart of the rebellion for years. In the hands of the rebels since 2015, it is the largest contiguous area they controlled. It has access to Turkish borders and secures supply lines for weapons, fighters and aid.
Over the past two years, Idlib has become a shoebox that has attracted an estimated 20,000 rebels from across the country after losing government forces and negotiating devastating sieges with Russia and Damascus. Civilians who refused to return to government rule were also brought there, nearly doubling the province's population.
Among the estimated 60,000 opposition fighters in Idlib are at least 10,000 radicals associated with the al-Qaida-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee). Thousands of foreign fighters from China, Europe and the Middle East are the backbone of radical groups.
The Turkish reinforcements go to 12 observation points that Ankara set up around Idlib last year, as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to create a "de-escalation zone". The deal also effectively stopped a previous government push and used Turkey as protector of Idlib.
Separately, Turkey has stationed troops in the Enclave under their control north and east of Idlib, where it supports Syrian opposition fighters and a civilian administration. It is part of his plan to create a safe area along the border where some of the more than 3 million Syrian refugees can return.
Ankara deployed its troops more than two years ago to expel the group of Islamic states and the fighters of the Syrian Kurds. For Ankara, the increasingly self-assured, US-backed Syrian Kurds were an existential threat that promoted the efforts of their own Kurdish insurgents.
"In the eyes of the rebellion, there is the hope that they will receive Turkish support … a Republic of northern Syria protected by Turkey and Northern Cyprus," said Fabrice Balanche, a Syrian observer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
These areas, managed by Turkey, are likely to be the target of Idlib's displaced people and rebels in the event of an offensive.
An Idlib offensive brings several threats to Turkey immediately at its border – a humanitarian crisis, a security alert with thousands of gunmen and a defeat in their security zone plans. If the Syrian troops retake Idlib without an agreement on the fate of the opposition fighters, they could threaten the Turkey-controlled enclave, and Ankara would lose credibility with the fighters and influence Damascus on any future deal.
"There is really no way for the Syrian military and Damascus & # 39; allies to launch a military offensive on Idlib that does not have any deeply negative, damaging effects on Turkey." There is no real way to cushion this for Turkey. " said Sam Heller, a Syria expert at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Turkey's strategy in the opposition areas has been hampered by the presence of radical fighters. Supporting the National Front, she argued that it could pull off fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked HTS, the dominant power in the province, and force them to dissolve a new opposition ready to negotiate with the Syrian government.
The strategy had limited success.
The National Front has taken control of the territory in Idlib from HTS in recent months, which still controls almost 70 percent of the province. HTS began to show signs of divisions and two weeks ago Turkey declared it a terrorist group.
But with the beginning of a military offensive, HTS has set up joint operating theaters with various national front groups.
HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani, wearing an olive green military uniform, vowed to fight Assad's forces and said that Turkish surveillance posts would not provide protection.
The HTS spokesman in Idlib said that now is not the time to talk about dissolution into Turkish-backed rebel groups. He stressed that an agreement might have to be reached for the foreign fighters in the group.
"At the moment, no noise is louder than the battle," said Imad Eddin Mujahed. "We have many military surprises, enough to disturb our balance and fend off aggressors."
At Idlib rallies, protesters have taken to the streets the past two weeks to deny that the province is a hotbed of extremists. Thousands raised only the flag of the Syrian revolution, a reminder that there was once a popular uprising against Assad, and Idlib is now his last bastion.
Some sublime banners saying, "The rebels are our hope and the Turks are our brothers."
Syrian forces and militias supported by Iran are likely to avoid conflict with Turkish troops. But the attitude of the Syrian government and Iran is clear: they promise to recapture the entire territory of Syria and do not like expanding Turkish and American influence. They argue that the West has supported the jihadists with the support of the opposition and now needs to get rid of Syria.
"Assad and Russia have given the international community the choice: first we kill everyone, secondly, (they said), if you want to protect (idlib), then take the people you think is nice … it's cynical, but puts the international community before its contradictions, "said Balanche.
Al-Mustafa, the spokesman for the National Front, said the rebels were prepared for a fight he called "existential."
But, he added, "our cause will not end if we lose this fight."
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