The battle for the last significant rebel stronghold in Syria is imminent. It appears increasingly unlikely that anyone will step in to save Idlib province from the Syrian regime’s onward military advance. This is despite last-minute negotiations between Russia, Iran, and Turkey over the fate of north-west Syria, coming alongside stepped-up US warnings against a military assault.
Bashar al-Assad has now solidified his hold over much of the country, including southern Syria, where he recently defeated rebel positions. To this backdrop, the only way to avert a military showdown in Idlib now appears to be a total rebel surrender to regime forces. But the make-up of Idlib’s remaining rebel fighters means that a military fight is almost inevitable: thousands of the remaining rebels are associated with the jihadist, al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which rejects any compromise with the Assad regime. And its fighters have no viable escape route out of the province.
The already dire humanitarian situation risks worsening dramatically. The United Nations estimates that Idlib is now home to around three million people and they have few escape routes once the violence erupts. To the north Turkey, which is unwilling to take in more refugees, is refusing to provide refuge across the border into its own territory. For the civilian population set to be caught in the impending crossfire, much will depend on whether the Turkish government will allow fleeing civilians to move into the Turkish-controlled Syrian Afrin district that sits to Idlib’s north-east, or whether these civilians will choose and be allowed by Damascus to move into regime-held areas.
Much of the recent international focus has been concentrated on pressuring Russia to force Syria and Iran to call off the attack and avoid this humanitarian disaster. But all indications suggest that Moscow is moving in exactly the opposite direction. Russian officials have only intensified the drumbeat of attention on the need to root out al-Qaida-backed forces and re-establish central control in Idlib – an almost sure sign of Moscow’s intent to take the fight forward.
Turkey is still trying to convince Russia of a proposal whereby it would extend its influence into the province and take charge of demobilising extremist fighters in lieu of a military campaign. But this remains an unlikely outcome. Assad is intent on weakening rather than strengthening external influence in Syria, and so is unlikely to relent. Iran or Russia want to re-establish central control over remaining rebellion outposts and so are also unlikely to change their minds. With Turkey increasingly dependent on Russia more broadly, not least due to its deepening rift with the United States, Russia will unlikely feel a need to meet Turkish concerns. At a joint summit with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Vladimir Putin effectively rejected calls by Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a ceasefire.
Moscow may perhaps still back an incremental approach that sees regime forces advance into southern Idlib while Turkey maintains influence over northern parts of the province and continues efforts to isolate and eventually confront Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. But Moscow’s ability – or desire – to hold back Assad’s ambition for total control is highly questionable. Short of an unlikely Turkish desire to get more directly involved in militarily challenging an Assad advance – which would potentially involve breaking with Russia – this is only likely to be a temporary holding pattern before the Syrian regime looks to advance across the rest of the province.
The strong presence of jihadist fighters across Idlib has allowed the regime and Russia to frame the impending fight as a counter-terrorism drive
From the regime’s perspective, the current focus on Idlib is brutally logical. The other remaining swathes of non-regime-controlled territory in north and north-eastern Syria enjoy on-the-ground Turkish and US military support. Idlib, which sits on top of the key north-south highway linking Damascus and Aleppo, enjoys no such direct external backing. Turkey sponsors a contingent of rebel fighters in Idlib and has established a series of poorly manned observation posts across the province. But it has shown no desire to get pulled into a deeper, direct confrontation.
Meanwhile, the strong presence of jihadist fighters across Idlib has allowed the regime and Russia to frame the impending fight as a counter-terrorism drive. This fact essentially ensures that no outside power will come to the defence of rebels unless the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, despite loud Western condemnation of the looming campaign. The US may now be seeking to warn off a military assault, but it remains improbable that Donald Trump would authorise a serious military response that risks direct confrontation with Russia – which has now bolstered its Mediterranean military presence off the Syrian coast – and that would also be seen by some as coming to the defence of jihadist forces.
Once the military campaign begins, an eventual regime victory seems assured. Given the life-or-death situation facing ideologically committed rebels the fight could be longer and bloodier than expected, but the odds are wholly against their survival. The rebels will come under attack from regime forces, Iranian-backed fighters, and Russian air power, the last of which will, as elsewhere over recent years, be at the forefront of the campaign. But the rebels will also face ‘rehabilitated’ opposition fighters who have now joined the regime’s ranks after recently laying down arms in southern Syria. Such is the fate of the Syrian uprising that the regime has succeeded in mobilising its long-standing opponents to help deal rebels in Idlib their final death blow.