IntelBrief: What Will Happen In Idlib?
August 8, 2018
Bottom Line Up Front
• The Assad regime—backed by Russia and Iran—might soon turn its focus towards Idlib.
• The Idlib region in the northwest of Syria is the last significant rebel-held territory, with essentially every major rebel and terrorist group present there.
• It is hard to see how there will not be a definitive and catastrophic battle in Idlib, where huge numbers of displaced civilians have settled over the years.
• Turkey will have a sizable role in either deterring or waging a battle for Idlib, as will Russia; the U.S has interests in Syria but little influence in what comes next.
There have been many significant battles in the Syrian civil war—Aleppo, Raqqa, Homs and Deraa, among others—yet a battle for Idlib would likely be the last—and worst. As the Assad regime solidifies its advances in the south, it might soon look to the northwest, where Idlib has become a concentrated microcosm of the entire war. There are mainstream rebel groups squeezed next to terrorist groups, with the erstwhile al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) among the most powerful in Idlib. There are also hundreds of thousands, if not more, civilians that have fled into Idlib. Overlaying the local suffering and exacerbating it in many ways are the foreign countries that have helped turn the war into a web of proxy conflicts.
Idlib is the last of the four de-escalation zones that were established in 2017; Homs, eastern Ghouta, and Deraa/Quneitrawere all retaken by the Assad regime. Only Idlib remains. It would be very unlikely for the Assad regime to allow for a negotiated settlement of the last sizable rebel area. The regime, with the direct and indirect Russian and Iranian support it receives, sees triumph after seven years of military ebb and flow. It is not going to change its tactics or strategy on the verge of what feels like a final victory.
While Idlib is an irresistible target for the Assad regime, pressure and influence remain to dissuade them from a full-scale offensive on the region. Russia has some influence, though perhaps not as much as they had hoped. Still, its air support has been crucial in reversing Assad’s loses and furthering its advances. A full-scale battle for Idlib would be an altogether different military situation for Russia, however, which would likely force Moscow into an escalation of its own direct support. The regime’s air superiority, enjoyed elsewhere in the country, would be tested in Idlib, both by the mountains filled with well-armed rebels, and by Turkey, which in 2015 shot down a Russian jet that it claimed violated its airspace.
Turkey is the biggest wildcard in the region. The plan for de-escalation zones might have failed, but Turkey used it to establish a serious ground presence in a pivotal area. It controls a 93-mile wide line up to the western bank of the Euphrates and has numerous forward operating bases in and around Idlib. And while Turkey has moved closer to Russia since the 2015 downing of the Russian jet, it is unlikely to stand down in Idlib to appease Russia.
A large military campaign in Idlib would set off a serious humanitarian crisis in a country already suffering. With the Assad regime having regained much control across Syria, and now that the border with Turkey is essentially closed, there will be an intense concentration of misery for civilians in the Idlib region. The U.S. has significant interests in what happens in Idlib but, as with much of what happens in Syria, it has little leverage or influence. Despite most parties—except the Assad regime—stating they don’t want to see a major fight over Idlib, it seems inevitable that there will be a battle there.
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