BEIRUT — They dug trenches around towns, reinforced caves for cover and put up sand bags around their positions. They issued calls to arms, urging young men to join in the defense of Idlib, the Syrian province where opposition fighters expect to make their last stand against Russian- and Iranian-backed government troops they have fought for years.

This time, it’s “surrender or die.”

As the decisive stand for their last stronghold looms, this motley crew of tens of thousands of opposition fighters, including some of the world’s most radical groups, is looking for ways to salvage whatever is possible of an armed rebellion that at one point in the seven-year conflict controlled more than half of the country.

In its last chapter, just as it has throughout the long, bloody war, the Syrian rebellion’s fate lies in foreign hands. This time, the splintered and diverse rebels have only Turkey.

“The whole world gave up on us, but Turkey will not,” said Capt. Najib al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkish-backed umbrella group known as the National Front for Liberation.

Idlib, with its 3 million residents and more than 60,000 fighters, is Turkey’s cross to bear.

Ankara has appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution to the ticking bomb. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements of its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.

A wide offensive is only likely after a green light from Russia. But delicate diplomatic moves are at work. Moscow is keen on strengthening ties with Turkey, at a time when Ankara’s relations are at their lowest with the United States. Turkey, by calling on the United States and Europe for support, seems to be playing on that interest to pressure Russia to accept its proposals for a solution on Idlib that avoids an attack.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets for the second time in 10 days with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

“After proving its influence in Syria and the Middle East, Russia wants to pull Turkey away from the West much more than achieve a military victory over the armed Syrian opposition,” Mustafa Ellabbad, an expert on Turkish-Arab relations, wrote in Kuwait’s al-Qabas newspaper.

The province, the size of Lebanon, has been the beating heart of the rebellion for years. In rebel hands since 2015, it is the largest contiguous territory they controlled. It has access to Turkish borders, securing supply lines for weapons, fighters and aid.

For the past two years, Idlib became the shoe box into which were pushed an estimated 20,000 rebel fighters from around the country, after their losses to government troops and surrender deals negotiated with Russia and Damascus following devastating sieges. Civilians who refused to go back under government rule were also bussed there.

Among the estimated 60,000 opposition fighters in Idlib are at least 10,000 radicals affiliated with the al-Qaida-linked group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee).

“In the mind of the rebellion, the hope is that from Turkish support they can have … a republic of northern Syria, protected by Turkey like Northern Cyprus,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria watcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Syrian forces and Iranian-backed militias are likely to avoid a clash with the Turkish troops. But the stance of Syria’s government and Iran is clear-cut: They vow to recapture all Syrian territory and are loath to see an expansion of Turkish and American influence.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.