The civil war in Syria is about to enter a new phase by the possible operations to Idlib. While the Syrian regime is willing to close the chapter on one of the bloodiest civil wars on its soil by gaining the control over this last stronghold of opposition forces, relevant actors are contemplating on how to proceed in face of Idlib offensive. In the midst of an extremely hectic multi-faceted diplomacy, Russian forces commenced aerial bombardment in the first week of September.
The operations will not only effect the future of the regime, but will it also have considerable impact on the gains and future plans of the US, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Iran. Steffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy to Syria described the possible Idlib offensive as “perfect storm coming up in front of our eyes.” He is right in all terms. Anyone following evolvement of events in Syria cannot agree more on that.
In the same vein, this article will focus on the recent developments in Idlib within the context of key actors’ objectives. The importance of Idlib, the dominant terrorist organisations in the region and those actors’ interests in Idlib will be explained. I do argue that an offensive targeting Idlib may have devastating effects in the region.
Idlib:At the Center of Power Struggle
In February 2018, Syrian Army, backed by Russian Air Force and Iranian sponsored militias, besieged Eastern Ghouta. It is believed that 400.000 people affected from the heavy bombardments which caused thousands of people leave the region. Following this operation, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) turned its face towards north and to the most problematic region; Idlib.
Idlib, the last major rebel-held area, is home to almost 3 million people, of which 1 million is children. The province also borders Turkey, to the north, and is located in the middle of major highways running south from Aleppo to Hama and Damascus, and west to the Latakia.
Idlib didn’t become that important coincidentally. Just before the civil war erupted in 2011, Idlib was one of the main cities with Sunni population in Syria. However, when the protests against Assad regime began in 2011, nobody thought that the region would become a stronghold for the opposition groups. Some officers in the army, changed their sides and joined the opposition forces just after the protests erupted. Many small sized groups formed the so-called army which would later be called as the ‘Free Syrian Army’. By early 2012, Syrian army left Idlib’s villages. Following the fall of government institutions in Idlib, the vacuum of power gave rise to new opposition groups. While the civil war was eroding the country, starting from 2012, better financed and better armed radical Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham filled the vacuum with what they could offer to the locals.
In the spring of 2015, two most powerful terrorist groups in region – Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham – merged their forces by formation of an alliance with name “Jaish al-Fateh.” Its primary goal was to capture the regime-controlled provincial capital. They captured the city center in late March 2015. The regime launched an air bombardment against these forces immediately but it was far from being effective. Following Russian intervention in late September 2015, bombardments were intensified but opposition groups continued to be the ruling actor in the province.
By that time, Jabhat al-Nusra rebranded itself not to be targeted more by the US and other regional actors and then claimed It cut relation / affiliation with Al-Qaeda. In the beginning of 2016, the dominant force in the Syria was Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a merger of jihadi networks to include Jabhat al-Nusra.
In the current situation HTS controls key points in Idlib, including the provincial capital and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. It is designated as a terrorist organisation by the UN, which estimates it has 10,000 fighters in Idlib, including many foreign fighters.
Currently Idlib has a complicated structure. According to the International Crisis Group about one-third of the civilians in the original Idlib fled from the region. The city became a destination point for fighters and their families who accepted the deal by regime to be displaced under ceasefire agreements in Eastern Ghouta, Qunaitra, Sweida and other places alike. Currently, more than half of the civilians in Idlib have arrived from different regions. So, the city despite hosting a wide population of radical terrorist groups has an important civilian element which further complicates any such operation.
A different crisis
Idlib is very different from other regions in Syria and a possible full-scale military operation in Idlib has a potential to trigger both a humanitarian and a political tragedy.
It is clearly the highest item on agenda for key players. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said ‘the situation in Syria cannot be solved without solving the problem in Idlib’, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem declared the government’s priority was now to “liberate” Idlib. He said they are determined to defeat Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) “no matter the sacrifices”. Limited military operation ensued such statements. These first limitedaerial bombings certainly held a message for the West and Turkey in the run-up to the meeting between Astana Trio on 7th of September, 2018.
Tehran Summit in Context
The meeting that took place on September 7th in Tehran can be seen as a landmark event. Before the meeting, the Syrian army had deployed thousands of troops in addition to dozens of armored units along the southern borders of Idlib. At the same time, Russia began an enormous naval exercise in the EasternMediterranean, just a few hundred miles from the likely front lines, involving 26 warships and support vessels, as well as 36 planes, including strategic bombers.
On the first day of the meeting, the Russian and Syrian armed forces together bombed the region between Kafr-Nabudah and Khan Shaykhun. These villages are located in the south of Idlib. The move indicates Russian intention to push the rebels from south to northern border.
In the meeting, Turkey’s President Erdogan proposed insertion of a cease-fire call to the final statement. But especially Putin showed resistance to this proposal. Russia and Iran considered this demand as a western demand voiced by Erdogan.
Russia, Iran and Syria are all willing to use their strategic advantage on the ground in shaping the following steps by excluding the West from the process. Their attitude against Erdogan testifies for that policy. Putin not only rejected Erdogan’s demand, but he also put Erdogan in a position that shows him as a figure voicing the proposals by radical terrorist groups. The Tehran summit discussions between the three presidents also showed that there is a disagreement within the Astana trio. The disagreement is currently voiced at different levels and the televised dispute is just the tip of the iceberg in this sense.
Russian and Turkish leaders made a second meeting in Sochi upon demand from Turkey. At the end of four and a half hours talks, the leaders announced to have reached an agreement.
Accordingly, ‘all terrorist organisations and their heavy weaponry would be expelled from a 15-20 km wide zone by October 15 and troops from both countries would patrol the area’. While there is not so much detail on the current agreement, this development will not change anything in the region but will impose new burden onto Turkey. Seemingly, a full-scale military operation has been postponed to a future time. According to rumours circulating media, this was not a setback for Russians but a tactic to diminish the pressure from other actors. For the Russians conducting operations in the end of October would not mean much change.
Impending Perfect Storm
What is at stake for Key players?
If the Regime were to succeed in retaking the province, the last major rebel stronghold, this victory would essentially mark the end of large-scale, armed opposition within Syria, at least, as long as the U.S. keeps its boots on the ground in Syria. Furthermore, Idlib is not only a strategic point for Assad to step through ending the civil war, but it is also important for global and regional actors. Following Idlib, the biggest issue on the table will be Kurds’ position which may change the nature of the power struggle in Syria. In this sense, Idlib has to be examined in a detailed manner. It is clear that the ramifications of Idlib offensive will have affects on each actor.
Defeating the rebels in Idlib would mean a clear victory for Russia. Actually, Russian President Putin seems planning to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Generally, he achieved to roll back rebels through negotiations or military campaign from south to north and put the tough issues like hegemony of Kurdish groups and fight against HTS to the last. In this sense, these issues and intended Idlib offensive, brought Russia’s deepening ties with Turkey to the scene again.
From the Western side, Putin forces Turkey to accept implementation of this offensive which Turkish officials have long objected. He considers Turkey to be in a relatively weak position due to its weakened ties with the US. He also believes that he will gain a strategic advantage over the US. Because, in the aftermath of an operation to Idlib, the fate of northern Syria will also be defined where the US has several military bases and an ally, namely the Kurds. By taking Idlib under control, Putin will have the upper hand on the table.
Furthermore Putin, achieved remarkable progress in enlarging his country’s influence in the Middle East. Not only did Syria become a long-awaited entry point for Putin to meddle in the Middle East, but he also built an enormous influence on another key player, Turkey. Current Tehran and Sochi meetings are clear indicators of Russia’s influence over Turkey. Considering the last agreement between the two, Putin will likely win several points in strategic terms by, only, delaying the time of operation.
On the other hand, in the long run, the big picture is not going to be as shiny as the current one for Russia. Russia is using its military capabilities in many fronts for many years. Although, Russia’s military might is capable of defeating ethnic and/or fundamentalist terrorist groups, temporarily Russian state does not have handy capabilities to transform military achievements into permanent victories. Since Russia is benefiting from the power vacuum, because of US’s reluctance Middle East, the scene will change when we get closer to the end. So, major actors will be much more involved in the crisis when the final phase is near, which will make things harder for Russia.
Moreover, considering the evolving features of modern diplomacy, having a military success is not the only objective for the countries. There are a lot of critical dimensions on protecting a country’s strategical interests and economy has a vital importance in this regard. Russian economy is still weak to face with the burden of long-term military operations. Since the economy is generally dependant on the energy revenues, it makes country vulnerable in terms of budget deficits.
Putin can be said to have learned several lessons from USSR’s Cold War mistakes. That’s why he tries to limit the military expenditures by trying not to use so much power in Syria. But the Russian economy will be a big obstacle before Putin in the long run to maintain its newly acquired interests in Syria. Any economic crisis may result in a nightmare not only for Putin but also Russia-Iran and Syria axis. These countries are all economically weak countries. Tactical wins can easily be taken away by severe economic problems and Russia may find itself stuck in the Middle East swamp that will result economic and social problems.
A critical vulnerability for Russian military build-up in Eastern Mediterranean and in Syria is its incompetency in countering tier one opponents. Russian military operated effectively and decisively in a combined and joint manner against terrorists, proxy formations and regional state actors such as Turkey and changed the course of the conflict in Syria. Its military and diplomacy successfully harmonized their actions at the political-military level and managed to influence their Allies’ state apparatus to further its objective(s). Its overt and covert methods provided options to its diplomacy. However, when Russia crossed – red lines – of other major actors such as U.S. and Israel it paid unprecedented prices compared to Cold War days. An alleged Russian mercenary unit operating with SAA and Shiite proxies was annihilated by the U.S. led coalition when they crossed Euphrates River early in 2018. Russian GBAD units targeted by Israeli airstrikes. Likewise, the Russian made GBAD systems have proved to be ineffective against Israel Air Forces and lost one of its MPAs over Syria.
Turkey, which has backed some rebel groups in the region and set up a dozen of military observation posts in Idlib, is trying to avert an attack by Russian and Syrian Armies. Moreover, Turkey, which is already home to some 3,9 million Syrian refugees, fears a major offensive could create a new wave of refugees heading towards its border. Since hundreds of thousands of civilians will possibly move towards the Turkish border, that will be a severe risk for Turkey and hence for Europe. Unconfirmed reports claim that over 5.000 people had changed their location in the wake of Syrian troops’ offensive already. The first bombings in Idlib (which started from the south of Idlib) confirms that Russia and Syria are willing to push the rebels from south to northern Syria which is a direct threat to Turkey. The UN estimates that the military operation could displace up to 800.000 people who have no chance to change their location. Furthermore, the probable terrorist intruders in these groups change the dimensions of the security risk.
While Putin attaches great importance to have a western ally under his influence zone, Erdogan seems to be using this relationship, mainly, to maintain his hegemony over his opponents in Turkey. For that reason, Erdogan has not been so far too vocal about his opposition to an offensive to Idlib. What is more, Erdogan is not willing not to put his ties with radical groups in the region into jeopardy. In other words, Erdogan has ties with almost all sides in Idlib issue. He is trying to build his policy under a delicate balance which prevents him to step forward. While he doesn’t want to lose Russian support without building new ties with western countries and so cannot fully oppose Idlib offensive. At the same time, he doesn’t hesitate to voice radical terrorist groups’ demands on the table in order to diminish the risk of getting these groups anger.
In this sense, while some government officials stressed their doubts about the military action, Erdogan cannot put an all-out effort for fear of losing his current ally, Putin.
In the near future, it is unlikely that Erdogan chooses to directly and effectively oppose the Idlib offensive. On the other hand, he will try to establish a new communication channel with West. But, if Erdogan continues to search a new ally by putting Russia aside, Putin and his affiliates in Turkey may disclose the extent of cooperation Erdogan has with Russia.
The last Turkish initiative solidly demonstrates the dilemma Erdogan faces. He achieved to postpone the Russian military strike but it will put Turkey into a more problematic situation. Following the Tehran Summit, Turkey became de facto defender of the radical terrorist groups in international arena. Turkey’s relations with rebel groups are becoming more a problem than a solution for itself. It is visible that those groups have aligned with Turkish policies along the way so far. HTS has deliberately permitted Turkey to establish military presence in Idlib. Despite severe criticism from al-Qaeda loyalist circles, HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, considered this policy as a pragmatic way to protect his group’s long-term interests.
This visible or de facto cosy relationship when considered with objectives agreed upon in Sochi creates even greater problems. It is neither easy to achieve those objectives nor is it easy to convince those groups until 15thOctober. So, if Turkey can’t manage these promises, the security problem will get deeper for Turkey.
The US seems to be focusing much more on Syria in the last months. Obama administration policies prioritizing the threats emanating from Asia-Pacific region and unwillingness to deploy US soldiers on the ground, created a power vacuum in Syria to be filled by Putin.
Following US’s security institutions’ insistence on a new Iran policy, the US started to become more involved in Syria. In this sense, the US is considering Syria and Middle East (especially Iran) together and is willing to achieve a full withdrawal of Iranian forces and its proxies from Syria. US officials are continuing to voice their concerns about the possibility of chemical weapons use in Idlib and that makes nearly impossible to reach an agreement between Russia and the US on Idlib case.
Since CIA officially ended its program to support opposition groups in Syria, the US has a considerably low hegemony over these groups. At this point, the US may turn its face towards Turkey as a partner in Idlib again. Fear of refugee flow and potential use of chemical weapons are the common points that these two countries don’t want. It is believed that even the use of chlorine on a large scale in Idlib could trigger another US-led coalition air strikes against Assad regime. But Russia accuses Syrian rebels of preparing a chemical attack which Moscow says will be used to justify a Western strike against Syrian troops. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov claimed that the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee is preparing the attack in the northern Idlib province, and that it would be filmed by first-responders known as the White Helmets, which will trigger western countries’ air strike. Considering the political messages from Russia towards the US, a possible air strike by the latter will make the situation more complex and may result in a more devastating crisis between the two major actors.
On the eve of a military operation in Idlib, Iran will continue to benefit from the alliance with Russia and Syria. While the US and Turkey loses in strategic terms, Iran considers herself as the winner in any case. Another strategic advantage of Iran is being on the ground anyway. Since the country is aiming to set her defense lines, against a possible western attack, far from her soil, the current picture in Syria is a double win for Iran.
Moreover, Iran wants to solidify its influence on Assad and the regime forces even in the post-conflict era. Iran’s Minister of Defense Amir Hatami and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Sarif just recently visited Damascus together for signing a military cooperation pactand helping to rebuild the war-torn country.
However, despite all these initiatives and apparent advantages, it seems that it will still be difficult for Iran to continue its active role in Syria. The outcomes of Idlib offensive may trigger a new dispute among regional actors about utility of Revolutionary Guards. In the near future main issue for Iran will be protecting existence of Revolutionary Guards and its proxies in Syria. Considering harsh attitude of Trump administration against Iran and oncoming sanctions against country, Iran is likely to have more problems following Idlib offensive.
If Iran insists to maintain her position in Syria, a new stage on the game may come into play. This could involve US use of Kurdish groups not only against Iranian forces in Syria but also in Iran itself. So, while main issue for Iran will be protecting existence of Revolutionary Guards in Syria, the persistence on that policy will result in new problems. In this sense, Iran, itself, is actually getting a source of problem for Russian-led alliance. Since Iran is getting the weaker part of the axis, any social and/or economic problem will directly affect other parts of the axis and their gains in Syria. So Putin may not be eager to share Iran’s burden which may be a political test for the continuity of the axis.
After the Syrian civil war started, several concrete objectives for Israel became clear. In this sense, Israel aimed to; minimize Iranian influence in Syria, prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, diminish the military threat emanating from Syria, undermine the legitimacy of Syria’s claims to the Golan Heights, and prevent Sunni militants from establishing infrastructure or operational bases along Israel’s border.
Israel secretly armed and funded at least 12 rebel groups in southern Syria, in the last seven years, that helped prevent Iran-backed fighters and militants of the Islamic State from taking up positions near the Israeli border.The country has conducted many air strikes against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah targets during the civil war.
At the end of the day, Israel achieved many of the above-mentioned goals in Syria.
But the strategic victory for Israel is not limited with these points. Syrian Kurds are also close to gain a safe haven in northern Syria, which,with the Iraqi Kurds, may result in rise of a credible partner for Israel in the region.
With regard to the Iranian threat, continuing influence of the country in Syria is a security problem for Israel. Lastly, Israel started to pursue a more aggressive policy based on its opposition for Iran’s existence in Syria. Starting this year, there has been a sharp increase in the frequency of aerial bombardments and the commencement of the direct targeting of Iranian facilities and personnel. Israel is decisive about diminishing Iran’s influence in Syria. President Trump’s hawkish attitude against Iran is also evident and will likely jeopardize Iran’s position. It is arguable that, another key rival to Iran, Saudi Arabia will also join forces with Israel and the US to ensure that Iran leaves Syria, and its influence in the region is diminished.
Despite some European countries’ independent moves in Syria, European Union didn’t get directly involved in Syrian civil war. Those individual moves are French intent to lead some initiatives in Syria and debates taking place in Netherlands on government actions in Syria. But in general, European Union has not been on the scene.
But the same should not be expected in the case of Idlib. As Brexit and political crisis concerning refugees are the two most debated topics in the European Union, the Idlib offensive and a probable new wave of refugees following a military operation are two of the main agenda items in the Union. It should be noted that the last time, President Erdogan had threatened EU to send thousands of refugees to Europe (especially Germany) and EU had hardly gotten a deal with Erdogan.
If the Idlib operation results in a refugee flow, then Erdogan will likely use this as a leverage against EU. He may continue to enjoy the seeming immunity from the EU on critical issues, inter alia, human rights and democracy. That may also open doors for a new rapprochement between Turkey and EU. The new path of Turkey- EU relations will be heavily affected by the attitude of European countries in face of refugee crisis.
By and large, the dynamics of northwest Syria are extraordinarily complex and Idlib offensive has a potential to result in a perfect storm which no single actor involved has the capability to control. Stakes are getting higher while the end of Syrian civil war is near. It is not unlikely that, Idlib offensive may be a phase in ending the turmoil in Syria but also a start of new tragedies in the region.