“The Syrian land is one [nation-state] and the theater of operations is one, from the far south to the far north. The Turk is the American agent in this war. We were fighting this agent, Turkey, everywhere and whenever it struggled to do what it wanted, it left no option but war.” ~ Bashar al-Assad
These were Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s words which he delivered in an October speech before his forces in Idlib, shortly after Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring in northeast Syria. With much frustration, he warned Ankara and Turkish-backed militias in Idlib that if a political solution cannot be reached, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will retake the province forcefully. In Assad’s speech, he called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a “thi
On December 2, in the deadliest outbreak of fighting between insurgents and government forces since a Russia-brokered ceasefire in late August, at least 96 combatants were killed in the rebels’ last stronghold, including 52 pro-Assad fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In Idlib, there is a complicated landscape with a host of actors vying for influence and power. The dominant non-state actor in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group, which was previously called the al-Nusra Front and currently refuses to negotiate with the government in Damascus. HTS, which claims to have separated from al-Qaeda in 2016, is not the only jihadist group in Idlib. Huras al-Din, which was established in early 2018, is considered more hardline than HTS and, according to some experts, was likely coordinating with ISIS to shelter Baghdadi in Idlib until his recent killing. In addition to HTS and Huras al-Din, there are other jihadist/Islamist groups opposed to the Assad government which have a presence in the province. At the same time, the militaries of Syria, Russia, Turkey, and the United States are also carrying out operations in Idlib.
Building on the momentum which the SAA gained following Russia’s intensified military involvement in the Syrian conflict in 2015, the Syrian government has been determined to bring every inch of land in the country under its control.
Building on the momentum which the SAA gained following Russia’s intensified military involvement in the Syrian conflict in 2015, the Syrian government has been determined to bring every inch of land in the country under its control. Yet Russia, in its talks with Turkey via the Astana Process, has been able to prevent the Syrian regime from waging an all-out offensive to capture the province.
That said, there have been indicators that a regime offensive is now looming. Additionally, that SAA and Turkish forces clashed on October 30 near Ras al Ain was another indicator of Syria’s willingness to accept greater risks in order to send messages to Ankara about how the Damascus regime sees its duty to defend Syrian sovereignty. At the same time, the Turkish and Syrian governments could find a ‘new understanding’ based on Ankara letting the remaining anti-Assad militants in Syria meet their fate amid a regime offensive in Idlib in exchange for the Damascus government taking control of the YPG in northeast Syria and providing Turkey with guarantees about respecting its territorial integrity. For Turkey, having the Syrian regime control land along its border is, at least by this point, politically acceptable. However, the Turks will fight to prevent any part of their border with Syria existing under YPG control.
The concentration of Turkish-sponsored rebels and jihadists in Idlib, which arguably created the necessary security conditions for the late ISIS leader to take refuge there, has sharpened concerns that northwest Syria could degenerate into a terrorism export factory over time.
The US-led military operation that killed Islamic State’s (ISIS or IS) leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October, was informative about the extremist group’s presence in Idlib. Although it is unclear how long al-Baghdadi had been in the village of Barisha (only a few miles away from the Turkish border), throughout the past nine months many fighters from the group fled to Idlib following the physical Caliphate’s demise in Baghouz. The concentration of Turkish-sponsored rebels and jihadists in Idlib, which arguably created the necessary security conditions for the late ISIS leader to take refuge there, has sharpened concerns that northwest Syria could degenerate into a terrorism export factory over time, threatening not only Syrian but also Russian and European security.
Stemming terrorism in Idlib and curtailing its potential to spread as a prerequisite for ensuring sustainable security in post-war Syria is thus expected to enjoy wide support, particularly from the Assad government’s allies but also some of its earlier adversaries. Indeed, because of the raid that killed Baghdadi, Damascus’ official narrative about the SAA’s fight against terrorism in Idlib will likely receive greater sympathy, both regionally and internationally.
Regionally, the odds are good that Arab regimes such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia would back an SAA offensive to conquer Idlib, mostly justifying such support under the banner of countering terrorism, Turkish expansionism, and/or “neo-Ottomanism.”
While 12 months ago many observers may have held a view of Idlib as an opposition-held enclave bravely holding out, more will likely shift toward a perception of the province as being filled with global terrorists. Naturally, such changes in perceptions will give Assad more room to act in the court of global opinion. Regionally, the odds are good that Arab regimes such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia would back an SAA offensive to conquer Idlib, mostly justifying such support under the banner of countering terrorism, Turkish expansionism, and/or “neo-Ottomanism.”
While Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring increased Damascus’s sense of urgency concerning efforts to prevent the entrenchment and expansion of a Turkish sphere of influence on Syrian territory, Ankara’s strategic ties with Moscow and Tehran could complicate an all-out operation to recapture Idlib, even though the solidifying presence of Turkish-sponsored anti-Assad forces continues to jeopardize the Russian and Iranian gains in neighboring provinces over the past few years.
The Kremlin is being careful not to alienate the Erdogan administration amid its row with the United States and other NATO allies over the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, a rupture Moscow has worked hard to cultivate within the Western military alliance. Iran, on the other hand, needs Turkey’s assistance to mitigate the devastating effects of Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy on its national economy and regional patronage network.
If Turkey and/or the groups that it supports in Idlib fight with the SAA, the Kremlin would come under pressure to intervene on Assad’s behalf. If the SAA gives up on any hope for a political solution to Idlib, Assad’s forces would likely wage an all-out offensive to retake control of the entire province, which would likely force Moscow to make difficult and painful decisions. Such an intervention to back Damascus would undermine the Astana Process and severely dim the prospects for Ankara making concessions to Moscow vis-à-vis Idlib.
By the same token, it is no secret that Russia’s government believes that Turkey has failed to uphold its end of the bargain regarding Idlib. Moscow’s hope was that a regime offensive into the northwestern province could be averted so long as Ankara proves capable of controlling Idlib and keeping the anti-Assad militias in check, which finally brings us back to the sovereignty factor.
The loss of Idlib possibly as a Turkish sphere of influence or “republic of north Syria”can embolden similar aspirations in other parts of Syria, particularly the northeast.
Other than the threat of terrorist retrenchment and spread, and the fact that Turkey might utilize it as an instrument of foreign policy to further its geopolitical interests in Syria at the expense of Damascus, the loss of Idlib possibly as a Turkish sphere of influence or “Republic of North Syria”—as some rebel groups may aspire to found—can embolden similar aspirations in other parts of Syria, particularly the northeast.
As one these authors wrote for Newsweek last year, “the province’s geographical position along the border with Turkey has rendered its territorial status even more critical, probably causing fears inside the government that its protracted control by Ankara-backed rebels—including the National Liberation Front formed in May 2018 [or more recently the Syrian National Army (SNA)]—could beget it a fate similar to that of the Golan Heights: first captured during war by Israel, then annexed de facto.” The Trump administration’s unconventional recognition in March 2019 of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights is bound to fuel those fears.
As international efforts to reform Syria’s Constitution and move to the post-conflict reconstruction phase gradually gain traction, Damascus is unlikely to let Idlib stay out of its sovereign control for too long.